Not long after 57-year-old Rebecca O'Connor returned to Denver following a trip to visit her two grown daughters in Charleston, South Carolina, the COVID pandemic hit Colorado. And O'Connor, who'd lived in the Mile High City for over three years at that point, began to experience housing instability for the first time in her life.
O'Connor's cannabis job — "I could never get past $16 an hour," she says — was reduced to part-time owing to doom-and-gloom economic expectations, and a temporary living situation that O'Connor had hoped would turn permanent didn't work out. She tried motels, but in June 2020, O'Connor, who had once lived in luxury in a South Carolina home by the side of a golf course before divorce split her family, moved into the Denver Coliseum, where the City of Denver and local service providers had set up an emergency shelter for women.
Eventually, she moved into Sinton's Sanctuary, a women's shelter in Denver. "My whole entire time at Sinton’s was wonderful," says O'Connor, who subsequently moved into a hotel with the help of the Delores Project.
In September 2021, O'Connor finally moved into her own apartment near City Park. She now works for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment
, in one of the state agency's labs.
"It just feels magical. Then comes the pride. I feel super proud of myself," says O'Connor, who was able to secure a permanent place to live through a "housing surge," a new effort by the City of Denver that has leveraged unprecedented federal support and used it to get people experiencing homelessness off the streets.
The first housing surge began on September 1, 2020. Mayor Michael Hancock and the Denver Department of Housing Stability announced a goal of getting 200 people experiencing homelessness housed within 100 days. The plan called for working the Denver Housing Authority
to use emergency housing vouchers available through the American Rescue Plan Act, augmented by coronavirus relief dollars to help with rapid rehousing. Nonprofit service providers would pitch in on the process.
"We pretty much crushed our first goal," says Britta Fisher, the city's chief housing officer and the head of the Department of Housing Stability
The first housing surge helped house 576 people in 340 households. According to Derek Woodbury, a spokesperson for HOST, that represented a 24 percent increase over the 274 households that were housed in Denver during the same time period the year before.
Aside from having more resources, Fisher credits the city's success to "tighter collaboration" between the city and various service providers and "troubleshooting" how to better use resources for specific situations.
The City of Denver is now nearing the end of its second housing surge, which launched on February 1 with the goal of housing 400 households — not just individuals — within 100 days. The push is set to wrap up on May 11.
HOST is a bit behind schedule this round. By March 24, the halfway point, the housing surge had resulted in 146 households being rehoused, leaving 254 households that need to be moved to permanent housing in order to meet the 400 household goal by May 11.
After that, the City of Denver won't be able to house people at such a fast clip unless there's another windfall to replace the fast-dwindling federal relief money and vouchers. Going forward, housing people experiencing homelessness "might not be at the same frequency," Fisher admits.
"We’re hoping that with this surge we really are getting out all of these dollars," she adds. "We hope we’ve learned some things that can be helpful for us in our ongoing, daily housing."
According to Denver City Councilwoman Debbie Ortega, the pace of these homelessness initiatives isn't sustainable if the city has to make up for the loss of federal funding. "Once those dollars dry up, I don’t believe the general fund has the built-in wherewithal to carry those costs," she says.
Still, those working with the City of Denver on housing and homelessness are celebrating the successes.
"Rebecca [O'Connor] was really fun to be able to come onto my caseload," Stacey Galvan, who oversees rapid rehousing grants for HOST and has been with the city for close to three decades. "It was great to get her out of the homeless situation and into permanent affordable housing. ... It’s just satisfying. It’s so fulfilling for people to get on with their lives and have a roof over their heads."
Securing housing after experiencing homelessness means more to O'Connor than living in an expensive house on the first fairway.
"It doesn’t take possessions to be happy, and you don’t have to keep up with the Joneses," she says. "You just have to keep up with yourself. I’m almost sixty, and I've finally got to the point where I'm like, 'I am worth something.'"