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

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Most of the public's focus is on the visible homeless, the chronic homeless, the individuals given priority in the ten-year plan. But that population is just a fraction of the metro area's total homeless population.

Denver, like most cities, uses what's known as a Point-in-Time survey to quantify its homeless population. The PIT, conducted by the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative every January, relies on volunteers who go to streets, parks, shelters, service providers, hotels and other places in the seven-county metro area and survey individuals about their homeless experience. The MDHI is quick to point out that the PIT is an incomplete "snapshot" of the homeless, a one-night survey. But as imperfect as that report is, it supplies the numbers that the city and surrounding counties rely on to measure the homeless population.

In 2005, when Denver's ten-year plan began to be implemented, the PIT counted 10,268 homeless individuals in the seven-county metro area. The numbers have hovered around 10,000 ever since, reaching a high of 12,605 in 2012; in 2013, the total was 11,167. (The 2014 total was just 8,042, but because of bad weather, fewer volunteers brought in fewer surveys, skewing the numbers, according to the MDHI.) Denver County currently accounts for nearly half of the total homeless population, or 46.5 percent. Back in 2005, just 7.3 percent of the homeless population was considered chronic; this year's PIT put the percentage at 8.7 percent. That's a big drop from 2013, when 12.7 percent of the population fit the "chronic" definition.

Over the past four years, the federal government has turned its focus (and funding) from the chronic homeless to homeless veterans. In 2005, 15.3 percent of Denver's homeless population claimed past military service, compared to 13 percent in 2009. In 2013 that number dropped to 11.3 percent, according to the PIT surveys.

But in the past ten years, family homelessness -- which includes individuals in a couple, a couple with children, and single parents with children -- has grown. In 2005, 45 percent of the homeless were in families; in 2014, family homelessness accounted for 61.9 percent of those counted in the PIT survey. "We've done some good in terms of ending chronic homelessness, but the numbers of women, children, families and youth...have gone up," says Leslie Foster, president/CEO of The Gathering Place, a daytime drop-in center for women, children and transgender individuals.

Service providers blame the economic bust that hit in 2008 for the big increase in family homelessness, as well as homelessness overall. "Even if we had planned" for the recession, says Luehrs, "we probably wouldn't have planned to the magnitude that it turned out to be."

When the homeless population jumped, the need for emergency shelter beds increased. That caused tension in the Housing Commission, service providers say. Funding permanent housing when there was such an immediate need on the street made the housing-first model a tough sell. "Of course, everybody wants permanent housing, but in the meantime, as a service provider, you know people by face and by name and by story who are on the streets tonight," says Foster. "And it's really hard to say 'Let's do permanent housing and not do shelter' when you're watching people go out on the streets at night."

The recession wasn't the only challenge. In 2010, Hickenlooper resigned as mayor to run for governor; Mayor Michael Hancock was sworn in the next year. Hancock promised to keep DRH going: "The first step we took as a new administration was to make it abundantly clear that not only would Denver's Road Home continue as a vital initiative in the delivery of homeless services, but I would also move to make it a permanent fixture in our community," he said recently.

But there were problems with the program: The Homeless Commission was meeting less often, and members were still frustrated about changes in funding priorities. Meanwhile, DRH's private funding had dropped dramatically as multi-year grants expired.

"Clearly, anybody who was going to follow Jamie Van Leeuwen and the Hickenlooper team was going to have some huge shoes to fill," says Bennie Milliner, who became director of DRH in 2012. "As Hickenlooper moved to the state government...there was a dip in the fundraising and some uncertainty around the program. There was just a dip of energy -- not just funding fatigue, but human fatigue from the tremendous efforts over the first six years."

In DRH's nine-plus years, it has received $68 million in private and public funding; about 95 percent of that has been given to service providers. Since its start, DRH has funded more than twenty organizations, including the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, the Delores Project, Denver Health Medical Center, Metro Denver Homeless Initiative, Salvation Army and Urban Peak.

Private funding for DRH -- which comes from businesses, individuals and foundations -- had started at $1.7 million in the program's first fiscal year, hit its highest level with $4.6 million in 2007-2008, but came in at just $537,000 in 2013-2014. Over that time, the amount of city money going to DRH increased from $1.6 million in 2005 to $7 million last year; DRH also received a total of $3.7 million in funding from the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act between 2009 and 2012. But service providers have lost funding over the years. As a result, in 2012 The Gathering Place had to shrink the housing program it started with DRH funding from serving forty women annually to serving thirty.

"We had to cut it down because our funding got cut and we couldn't afford the person full-time," says Foster. "I don't think [Hancock's] not supportive, but it's not his priority like it was for Hickenlooper. I think he believes in it and wants to do something about homelessness but is just less focused on it."

Another challenge came in 2012, when the city passed the urban-camping ordinance, making sleeping on the streets illegal and subject to fines and jail time. Most service providers were against the proposal, arguing that there weren't enough beds for the current homeless population as it was and that people who had no place to go would be ticketed and arrested.

"Initially this appeared to us to be criminalizing homelessness," says Brad Meuli, president/CEO of Denver Rescue Mission, whose shelter has run at capacity for the past three years, both before and after the ordinance was passed. "I think it was intended more for Occupy Denver than targeted at the homeless. Nevertheless, it has had an impact on the people we serve."

The Denver Police Department only recently started issuing tickets under the ordinance, having written twelve since June. No arrests have been made, despite the fact that officers have contacted nearly 2,000 individuals since the ordinance was passed. But Foster doesn't see that as positive. "I think it's important to note that the fact that no one received a ticket isn't necessarily a sign of 'success,'" she says. "This is the wrong metric. The police have a protocol, as they should. They approach someone and ask them to move along. If the person moves along, no ticket is issued. No services are provided, and nothing has really changed in anyone's life; they have just 'moved along.' Success is seen in housing, not in the lack of tickets issued."

Foster says that her clients have been demoralized and hurt by the ordinance and the city's lack of support. "I think that the ordinance has supported an increasing sense of hopelessness and a feeling that 'the system' is more random than responsive," she explains. "There really is more shelter than before the ordinance, [but] there still is not enough shelter, and we anticipate that this winter will be a hard one.... The continued lack of shelter beds, the promises of more shelter, moving shelter and future shelter all create an atmosphere of powerlessness."

Although the city promised to create more beds when the ordinance was passed, Denver is still many beds short. This past January, the PIT counted 724 individuals -- 9 percent of the total homeless -- literally on the street. (In 2005, the number was 1,119, or 10.9 percent.) More than half of these were in Denver County, where 408 individuals reported staying on the street and another 1,346 reported staying in a shelter. That adds up to 1,754 homeless people who needed shelter -- and Denver County only has 1,200 regular shelter beds, as well as 250 overflow beds for winter emergencies. That leaves a 300-bed gap, and many of those who need shelter most are women and children, say service providers.

"We've really reduced the number of single men who are homeless, but families, children and women were backfilling like crazy," Foster says. "Shelter-wise, there are not as many beds."

The 24-hour center that the city promised more than two years ago hasn't been built -- and when it is, it won't address that need. Although it was promoted as an answer to the camping ban and referred to at different times as a "drop-in" shelter, an "emergency shelter space" and a "rest and resource" center, the latest iteration of the plan calls for housing just 30 to 45 in-crisis individuals on a referral-based system.

DRH says the center was never intended to be a traditional shelter, and that the new plan resulted from conversations with neighbors and other stakeholders. But so far, it doesn't even have a location.

And other projects that do have locations have faced opposition. Globeville residents have objected to a new shelter that would house 75 to 100 women at Holy Rosary Catholic Church, saying they see the shelter as an obstacle to the area's rejuvenation. Representatives at Catholic Charities, which will run the shelter, have continued to meet with them. The new shelter will replace one on Elati Street that's set to close on December 1.

Similarly, the Ballpark Neighborhood Association is challenging the city's approval of the Denver Rescue Mission's community center, which will go behind the current Lawrence Street Shelter. The new center will have showers, bathrooms and a kitchen for the homeless, as well as a courtyard that will serve as an outdoor day shelter. The Ballpark neighborhood has seen an influx of homeless since the urban camping ban passed; in response to business and residential concerns, this summer the city allocated $1.8 million in additional funding to increase the law enforcement presence in Ballpark and LoDo and along the 16th Street Mall.

But although Denver is far from ending homelessness, service providers say the city would be much worse off without DRH and its ten-year plan. "If anyone holds the city or Denver's Road Home at fault for not reaching the goal of ending homelessness, then I think they are being shortsighted and not being realistic," says Parvensky. "What would the streets look like today if the programs and efforts that have been supported by DRH hadn't happened? I'm sure that we'd be much worse off."

Among DRH's successes was educating the community about the issue. "The primary thing that DRH did was, then-mayor John Hickenlooper convened the initial Homeless Commission and basically brought the weight of the mayor's office to focus on the issue of homelessness in a way that had never been done before," says Parvensky. "And through that demonstration of political will, it was able to organize some resources, some community leadership and some increased coordination among service providers to better address homelessness in Denver."

"I do believe that we've become a more compassionate city toward homeless people because of Denver's Road Home and the idea that both mayors have said, 'We've got to do better than this. These are people in our community. These are our sons and daughters,'" says Luehrs.

That exposure and DRH's influence helped Luehrs build St. Francis Center's Cornerstone Residences, a fifty-unit permanent supportive-housing complex at Park Avenue West and Curtis Street. "I believe because there was a focus by the city coming from the mayor's office on affordable housing, that people opened their doors and said, 'Yeah, this is a high priority in the city now, so, yeah, we're going to make it happen.'"

Although the ten-year plan is coming to a close, DRH isn't going anywhere. Milliner says the program will be focusing on getting foundation money through multi-year grants and private fundraising, such as PJ Day, a campaign that raises money and awareness for homelessness by inviting the community to wear pajamas for a day.

The fundraising effort is part of a reinvigoration of DRH, which is getting ready to create a new plan. An executive team from the Homeless Commission will be working with DRH staffers on a draft, and the public will also have a say, according to Milliner. He promises six meetings -- five in different sections of Denver and one larger wrap-up meeting -- before the plan is finalized; those meetings should begin in January and end in May. Although he doesn't have many details about the new plan, he does say that the time span will be shorter and that there will be more of a focus on regionalism -- helping homeless-service organizations in the surrounding communities communicate and collaborate -- which service providers have requested.

"As we move forward, we see how dramatically the landscape can change. So I can clearly state...that it won't be a ten-year plan," Milliner says. "Right now I'm thinking that it will be probably about a three-year plan. As you look around the country, that's what you're really seeing in these new plan developments -- in the range of three to five years."

The plan might also align with the federal government's latest project, Opening Doors. Created in 2010, it calls for a five-year continuation of the ten-year plans to end chronic homelessness and adds the goals of ending veteran homelessness by 2015 and homelessness for families and youth by 2020.

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