Denver Set Out to End Homelessness Ten Years Ago -- Is the Finish Line in Sight?

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In the late '80s, George moved back home with his parents in Alabama, but he saw that his mom was drinking heavily. Even if he didn't think he had a problem, he didn't want to be around that. "I just felt like if you're in a chaotic situation, leave," he says. "So, having the last few dollars I had, I figured, let's go give Colorado a whirl. But I came totally unprepared. I didn't know it at the time; I do now. I was totally just one of those hothead kids: 'I'm going to conquer the world.'"

He struggled to find a job and ended up on the streets. As his situation stagnated, his drinking increased. "When it chilled outside, it was more of a comfort," he remembers. "Comfort me, sedate me, let me get some rest the few hours I can."

He got a job, but lost it because he failed to show up for work. He found a bed at a shelter, but was arrested when a fight broke out next to his cot. "In the shelter, I fit the bill," he says. "If it looks bad, and it fits your situation...you get tagged with it."

His life became booze and little else. He started hanging out at Sonny Lawson Park, at Park Avenue West and Welton Street, where his bed was a flattened cardboard box. His main priority was keeping a bottle of Wild Irish Rose in his hand.

He didn't think of himself as homeless. At Sonny Lawson, there was a camp under every tree; the people who lived there would tour the trees like they were visiting friends' houses, drinking and partying. "I was resigned to the fact that this is my lot in life, and I'll just deal with it the best I can," George says.

In 2007, George had been living on Denver's streets for more than fifteen years when he stopped in to pick up food stamps at the now-closed Denver Human Services center on Welton and met Jerene Petersen, the program manager for a new city division called Denver's Road Home. She was chatting with veterans, because she'd heard that they didn't want to move off the streets -- and George was proof of that. He'd been homeless so long he didn't want help, didn't even know what help looked like. Peterson invited him to come tour a facility that helped homeless veterans anyway.

A few weeks later, she got a call telling her that George was asking for her at the Welton Street office. "This is going to sound cliché-ish, but it's really strange," he says now. "I had no clue that when this lady walked into my life it was going to change. I wasn't looking for that. I was really looking for my liquor."

Denver's Road Home, billed as the "ten-year plan to end homelessness," entered its tenth year this past July. As anyone in downtown Denver can see, homelessness has not ended.

But according to figures released just last week in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's 2014 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, the total number of people experiencing homelessness in Colorado has dropped 29.5 percent since 2007. The report, which uses numbers reported by local and state agencies, found that nationally there's been a 10 percent reduction in the number of homeless overall, with a 25 percent drop in the unsheltered population since 2010. The report also found significant reductions in homeless veterans and families nationwide -- a 33 percent drop among veterans and a 15 percent decline in the number of families with children.

Although Denver is following through better than many other cities with its ten-year plan, Denver's Road Home was not designed to actually end all homelessness in this city. In fact, the "ten-year plan to end homelessness" tag was a federal creation, not a Denver invention: More than a decade ago, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness challenged cities to create ten-year plans to end chronic homelessness, and the U.S. Conference of Mayors accepted that challenge in 2003. Denver was one of many communities that adopted the federal language in promoting its efforts to find a solution to chronic homelessness.

By 2010, 243 communities had created a ten-year plan -- but not all have carried through, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Denver has. "When I think of places around the country who come around this issue and a plan around [the] homeless, Denver is one of the ones to take it seriously," says Steve Berg, the National Alliance's vice-president for programs and policy.

John Hickenlooper, who was elected mayor in 2003, took it very seriously. He championed the homeless issue from the start, rallying the business community and service providers and forming the Denver Homeless Planning Group, whose members included advocates for the homeless, city officials, homeless individuals and funders. "It was a mixture of all the people who were stakeholders in and around the issue of homelessness," says Tom Luehrs, who has been executive director of the St. Francis Center for 23 years, was part of the group, and now serves on the Denver Homeless Commission.

The group developed "A Blueprint for Addressing Homelessness in Denver," a report on the needs of the homeless community. The blueprint proposed creating a ten-year plan for addressing the steep increase in homelessness from 1990 to 2003 -- an increase of 7,740 individuals, or nearly 500 percent over thirteen years. The planning group soon morphed into the Denver Homeless Commission, which used the blueprint to develop a ten-year plan. The city designated the Denver Department of Human Services to manage implementation of the plan through a new program: Denver's Road Home (DRH).

The program's plan included eight broad goals for ending chronic homelessness: 1. Develop permanent and transitional housing opportunities to meet the needs of low-income individuals; 2. Make safe shelter beds and activities available for all populations both day and night; 3. Increase services for preventing homelessness; 4. Improve access to supportive services that promote long-term stability; 5. Create a homeless outreach program to better connect homeless people and service agencies; 6. Assist people who are homeless in obtaining skills and knowledge necessary to participate in the workforce; 7. Build community awareness and support for programs addressing the needs of the homeless; and 8. Reform Denver's zoning, building and development codes to facilitate an adequate supply of emergency and affordable housing.

But when DRH adopted the goal of "ending homelessness," that did not mean there would never be a person in Denver without a home. The goal was to have enough options and services so that when individuals lost their homes, the city had the capacity to address their needs and remedy the situation quickly, so that homelessness did not become a permanent state.

"Certainly when you talk about ending homelessness, you talk about ending homelessness as a way of life or ending homelessness as a chronic condition, not that it would prevent anyone from ever being homeless," explains John Parvensky, who has been president of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless for nearly three decades. "Homelessness should be brief and rare, rather than an ongoing situation."

The federal government wanted these ten-year plans to focus specifically on ending chronic homelessness -- a condition that accounts for just a part of the overall homeless population, but the most challenging part. A chronically homeless individual is defined by HUD as someone living in an emergency shelter or on the street who has a disabling condition; who has been homeless for a year or more; or who has experienced at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years.

According to HUD, the key to ending chronic homelessness is having enough housing units for these individuals -- housing that doesn't require them to be sober or have an income and allows for consistent access to services like health care and government benefits.

A national campaign called 100,000 Homes, an initiative by the nonprofit Community Solutions that helped house 100,000 people over four years, claims that housing an individual immediately with supportive services can keep more than 80 percent of homeless individuals off the streets.

Immediate housing also reduces homeless individuals' financial impact on the city. From a sample of formerly homeless people -- 128 individuals receiving treatment and housing at the Mental Health Center of Denver -- DRH estimates that each person housed saved the city about $38,106 annually, for a total of $4.8 million in a year. When they were housed, their use of emergency services decreased, reducing jail time, hospital stays, psychiatric stays and detox, according to the DRH report.

Since DRH started, officials say, the program has helped add 2,941 "housing opportunities" to the city's stock. (DRH doesn't have a breakdown of housing-unit types, such as housing with programs versus independent affordable housing; those numbers should be in the ten-year report due out next year.) And last month, the Denver Office of Economic Development announced a five-year plan to increase affordable housing in the city, which includes some housing with services for the homeless.

But even with all of DRH's work over the past decade, there's not enough housing: The St. Francis Center has 150 people waiting to get into its Cornerstone Residences supportive-housing program.

Although DRH's priority was developing housing with supportive services, it also funded programs to meet its other goals.

Through eviction-prevention assistance funded by DRH, 6,445 families and individuals were kept from becoming homeless. Nonprofits including Mercy Housing, Mental Health Center of Denver, St. Francis Center, The Gathering Place and Warren Village distributed those funds.

Another DRH-funded program, run first by the Denver Rescue Mission and now by the Salvation Army, partnered faith communities with homeless individuals and helped mentor 1,215 families and seniors out of homelessness.

DRH has also helped generate 7,984 employment and training opportunities and started both the Homeless Court (where hearings are designed specifically to help the homeless clear their records of petty crimes and pay reduced fees) and Project Homeless Connect, which brings services from around the metro area under one roof in one annual event.

One of the most successful programs has been the Denver Street Outreach Collaboration, which was created by DRH under the leadership of then-director Jamie Van Leeuwen and helped take 2,549 individuals off the street. "Outreach was one of the things that came in with Denver's Road Home, and that was a huge thing," says Luehrs, whose St. Francis Center, along with Urban Peak and the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, manages the outreach workers. "That was momentous, because for the first time, we knew who was out on the streets -- who they were and what their issues were."

Continue for more on Denver's Road Home.
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Kristin Pazulski has been a renaissance faire wench, a reporter, an espresso-shot slinger, an editor of a newspaper for the homeless and a grant writer. She's now a freelance writer covering Denver's restaurant scene.
Contact: Kristin Pazulski