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Homelessness: What is the city doing to help women transition to permanent housing?

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In our latest feature, "Bed Check," we take a close look at the day-to-day challenges homeless women in Denver face when navigating the emergency shelter system. This is just one piece of the available-services puzzle, and the city says it is dedicated to long-term solutions. So what is Denver doing to transition women out of homelessness into permanent housing?

In reporting the story, we interviewed Helen Charllette (she declined to give her last name), a 51-year-old, formerly homeless woman who participated in the city's "Street to Home" program, designed to identify those with the greatest needs and connect them to housing and services.

The city agencies that work on homeless issues emphasize the importance of supporting and building out these kinds of programs that help women in a long-term transition.

Helen had been homeless for three years when she was connected to the Street to Home program, run by the Mental Health Center of Denver.

That program identifies chronically homeless individuals who suffer from mental illness and/or substance abuse disorders and gives them supportive housing opportunities that integrate "high intensity treatment" and case management. By working through a specific program or gaining support from a case manager, women are more likely to be successful in their new housing and stay off the streets, officials say.

"It was a really difficult, bad time in my life...really depressing and lonely," says Helen, recalling the period prior to eight months ago, when she secured a place on South Federal Boulevard. "I was drinking and using...and I didn't care."

Helen was identified through the city's "Vulnerability Index," a tool for prioritizing homeless people on the street based on the fragility of their health and the length of time they've been on the street. An entity called the Denver Street Outreach Collaborative works with the city's service providers and Denver's Road Home, the city agency that oversees homeless issues, to connect an average of ten chronic or vulnerable people a month to housing. Since Road Home was launched in 2005, it has housed a total of 1,992 people, officials say. Road Home also helps fund the Street to Home program, providing $850,000 this year.

"To be honest, I didn't want to wake up," Helen says, recalling her worst moments on the street when she was fighting addiction. "When you're on drugs...it doesn't even matter where you wake up.... You don't feel like you have a life."

Helen says she would sleep on the street, in shelters or with others selling and using drugs. "As long as you got drugs and alcohol...you got friends," she says.

Continue for more of our interview. That pattern changed for Helen when the Gathering Place, a daytime center for women in need, helped her find a case manager that eventually connected her to housing and substance-abuse treatment.

"I really wanted to get clean," she says. "It was totally my decision to do that.... You just get tired of being tired, tired of scraping the barrel. You just get tired of hustling."

Through her treatment program, which provides her with medication, and with the new stability of subsidized housing, she says it became easier for her to start turning her life around.

"I feel like waking up in the morning," she says. "I'm thinking clearer."

She adds, "The first step is wanting [to change].... The programs, the classes, none of that is gonna happen unless you want to."

Since participating in these programs, Helen says she hopes to go back to school and work toward becoming a registered nurse.

Part of her turnaround came from having a case manager who would listen to her. A lot of women on the street, she says, can feel abandoned.

"It's important to have somebody to talk to.... Sometimes, it feels like no one cares," says Helen.

"It's better now," she adds. "I'm seeing things with a whole new set of eyes."

Helen says her relationships with her two children and three grandchildren have also improved; she just spent Thanksgiving with them in Denver.

Still, as we note in our feature, there are a lot of women without homes in Denver and, from the perspective of service providers, not enough programs and beds to meet the growing demands.

As Helen looks toward her future, she says it depresses her to observe other women who haven't been successful.

"It's really hard to see them," she says. "I really feel sorry for them, I do, because there are people that are way worse off than I was."

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Follow Sam Levin on Twitter at @SamTLevin. E-mail the author at Sam.Levin@Westword.com.

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