Christopher Hampton estimates that in the four and a half years since he moved to Denver from Arizona, he’s filled out over 300 housing applications. “You name it, I had put in for it,” he says. Private landlords, the Section 8 voucher program, subsidized affordable housing...they all resulted in one rejection letter after another. In the meantime, Hampton remained homeless, staying in shelters, crashing on friends’ couches, going in and out of jail.
The reason for many of those rejections, Hampton explains, was his criminal record, which has followed him to every city and state in which he’s tried to settle. Often, landlords would tell him that his felony barred him from even being considered.
But things have finally turned around for Hampton, thanks to Second Chance Center, a nationally recognized Aurora prison re-entry nonprofit that Westword profiled in December. On February 24, Providence at the Heights, or PATH, welcomed Hampton among its first residents. That group included 49 adults and 13 children, who moved from no home at all to brand-new apartments on Alameda Parkway in Aurora.
All of the permanent supportive housing complex's adult residents have been chronically homeless (those who have been homeless for over one year, or who have had at least four bouts of homelessness in the past three years) and earn under 30 percent of the local area median income. They've been involved with the justice system. Many also have behavioral health disorders, physical disabilities or substance-abuse disorders, which have made it all the more difficult for them to find stable housing.
For Hassan Latif, Second Chance founder and executive director, PATH is the realization of a dream, backed by years of hard work and uphill battles. Second Chance Center has long identified housing as one of the most challenging barriers that formerly incarcerated people face in reintegrating to society and moving on to stable, crime-free lives. It has always been difficult for people with felonies on their records to find a landlord who will take them, never mind the challenge of cobbling together financial resources to pay rent immediately after leaving prison. And certain felonies can also disqualify them from public housing.
Denver’s affordable-housing crunch has only worsened the problem. Many get out of prison only to find themselves living on the streets. Nationally, formerly incarcerated people are ten times more likely to become homeless than the general population, and people experiencing homelessness are eleven times more likely to face incarceration than the general population. In Colorado, hundreds of former prisoners parole without housing every month.
“Every time I talk to someone who’s moving in and they start telling me how many years they’ve been out there, it just really emphasizes for me how important this is for people’s lives,” Latif says. He hopes its impact will extend beyond the families that live there, and show others in the community what the “housing first” model makes possible for those experiencing homelessness. Already, the project has drawn passionate community support, though not without controversy.
PATH sits on a plot of land behind Elevation Christian Church, which sold the land to Second Chance Center and has supported the project. Second Chance partnered with Blueline Development, a Montana-based developer with decades of experience in affordable housing, to find the capital for the $13 million project. Thanks to low-income housing tax credits granted by the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority, project-based vouchers from the Colorado Division of Housing and private capital funding from the National Equity Fund, PATH’s tenants will pay no more than 30 percent of their monthly income in rent.
But funding was only half the battle. In July 2018, the Aurora zoning commission rejected PATH’s site plan, citing concerns about parking. That was following months of what Latif calls misinformation and neighbors' resulting fears about living near people with felonies on their records. Second Chance appealed that decision to Aurora City Council in September 2018, and a torrent of public comment both in support of and in opposition to the project ensued.
Councilmember Crystal Murillo supported the project. “These are people,” she says of PATH’s residents. "If we're not supporting them to reintegrate back into our community, we're potentially contributing to the housing problem, because we know if you have a [criminal] record that it's infinitely harder to acquire housing. We know that's a gap and a broken part of our system, but if we're not doing anything to fix it, that means we're going to be part of the problem.”
City council narrowly voted to approve the project — which required virtually no funding from the city, just a $150,000 tax abatement — and it broke ground in January 2019.
Latif says the budget then “went crazy,” owing to tariffs and the 2017 tax bill, which lowballed the nonprofit on the value of housing tax credits. By the time construction was finished and it was time to furnish the apartments, Second Chance Center was out of money. Latif turned to Dana Jenkins, Second Chance operations manager, who put together an “adopt-an-apartment” campaign, found hotels in Aspen and Vail willing to donate mattresses and couches, and raised enough money and supplies to furnish sixty bedrooms and a common area.
On Presidents' Day 2020, dozens of community volunteers and local officials gathered to get each unit move-in ready. Each apartment is outfitted with the basics and more — everything from hand towels to toilet paper to shower curtains to silverware — which is important when new residents often arrive with nothing but what they can carry in a backpack.
Tenants applied through the OneHome coordinated entry system, which uses the Vulnerability Index Service Prioritization and Decision Assistance Tool (VI-SPDAT) to prioritize applicants on the waiting list based on their assessed need, with higher priority in this case going to those who would benefit from the service because of their involvement with the criminal justice system. Fourteen of the initial residents chosen are current or former clients of Second Chance Center.
Staffers hope that some residents become stable enough to move on from PATH if they choose to, but they will be able to stay as long as they like, as long as they pay their rent and stick to some basic ground rules. (PATH will have zero tolerance for illicit drugs or violence, for example.)
Everything about the place is designed to help residents succeed. PATH is located near the Aurora Public Library, half a mile from a light-rail stop, and right behind Elevation Christian Church, which has invited all residents to attend church services. The building is dignified, spacious and bright — no different than what you’d expect from any new apartment setting, other than a few atypical amenities, such as a large common area for classes and meetings, a barber shop and a food pantry. Each unit has huge windows that will overlook gardens that Second Chance plans to start up in the spring.
The key feature (besides the price) will be the people who run the building and the programs they’re planning to bring in. Latif wanted PATH to be staffed by people who were deeply familiar with Second Chance’s community, philosophy and the population it serves. Wanda Harrison, formerly a senior care manager at Second Chance Center, serves as the director of residents, heading up the team that will provide supportive services and staff the building.
While finally obtaining housing is the fulfillment of a dream for residents, Harrison knows it’s not always an easy transition. Most of the residents are coming directly from the streets, where they were focusing 24/7 on survival. Now that they have their basic needs met, some struggle to figure out what to do with their time.
Harrison compares the transition to adapting to a new culture. One man, she says, still carries around a backpack with all of his belongings, sleeping pad rolled up at the bottom. He told her that one night in the first week after moving in, he’d gotten ready to sleep out like he’d been doing for years, before he remembered that he had an apartment. Another resident constantly brings objects he finds in the streets into his place, and another frequently calls the paramedics for no apparent emergency. While these might be unusual behaviors, Harrison knows that sending staff to tell them to stop — which can affront personal autonomy, as they do live in their own apartments —isn’t going to help them in the long run. She aims to identify the unfulfilled needs the residents have been addressing with coping mechanisms, and to see how Second Chance Center can help them fulfill those needs.
To do so, Second Chance will offer a host of on-site supportive services, all optional but available to any resident for free. Social workers will help residents connect to financial benefits like Medicaid, SSI and food stamps. Cooking Matters will conduct classes that teach residents to cook healthy, balanced meals for themselves. Second Chance will facilitate a parents’ group that meets weekly, and there will be a closed Narcotics Anonymous weekly meeting starting next month. Aurora Mental Health staff will come onto the premises at least once a week to provide mental health screenings and consultations and connect residents to its services. Harrison is also setting up an advisory committee of residents, who will give feedback on the needs that the community in the building feels should be addressed. Service staff who are trained to respond to crises in a trauma-informed way will be on site 24/7. And all residents are welcome to attend programming at Second Chance Center.
“We want them to stay housed. We don't want them to go back out there, and I think all staff here gets that,” Harrison says. “They're vulnerable out there, they're getting hurt out there, they're not taking care of their health out there.”
The “housing first” model prioritizes housing as the first step for people who are struggling with life on the streets, rather than traditional models that demand that people commit to certain programs or show they have turned their lives around before they "deserve" or "can handle” housing. According to the housing-first philosophy, once people have met basic needs like food, shelter and safety, they are much more likely to address other issues in their life.
That rings true for Frank Noble, who moved into PATH after being unhoused since he was released from a halfway house after prison four years ago. He struggled to keep a job while also keeping appointments for housing counseling and supportive services. If not for Second Chance, he says, "I would still be out there homeless and miserable, probably sad and depressed and on drugs."
For Hampton, life without a stable home had also taken its toll. In the shelters, he says, he struggled to get enough rest with the strict curfews and constant chaos, and he was undernourished. He sometimes got into fights and got arrested, putting him back through the cycle of jail and adding yet another tick on his record.
Hampton has been going to Second Chance Center since he got to the Denver area. The staff there helped him find jobs, mentored him to stay out of trouble, and provided a strong community, offering a place where he could both seek advice and be helpful to others. “Second Chance is my family,” he says. Perhaps most important, staff pushed him to apply for PATH. When he found out he was getting an apartment, “I was running around like, 'Oh, my God!' Hugging everybody, shaking everybody's hand," he recalls. "It just puts you in a different mindset, knowing that you've got a place to go to, a place you can call home.”
Having his own place, Hampton says, will also give him the stability and motivation he needs to accomplish other goals that were near impossible while he was homeless, such as locking down a stable job and seeing his son consistently. “Coming out of prison, that was my plan. Housing first, then job, then car. Helps you put your goals in order so you can execute them,” he says.
Second Chance Center had scheduled a housewarming for PATH, open to all community members and neighbors, on March 20, but has postponed it to an undetermined date in order to protect residents, families and staff from the coronavirus spread.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.