2019-09-19
Story

Elisabeth Francis (right), a Saint Francis Center outreach worker for people experiencing homelessness, gives her card to a woman in Denver’s Civic Center Park on July 19, 2019.

Photo by Joe Mahoney / Special to The Colorado Trust

By Jennifer Oldham

On the coldest March day in 139 years, Jacob Davidson shared a blanket, a drink and a long talk with Cloies Ray Corley, Jr. on a downtown Denver sidewalk. Davidson awoke in the sub-zero dawn to find his friend dead from hypothermia, hypertensive heart disease and chronic alcohol abuse, according to a city medical examiner’s report.

“I really blame myself,” said Davidson, 26, as he asked motorists for cash in the median at North Broadway and Colfax Avenue on a balmy July morning. “It’s just so hard when you’re lying next to somebody, like you do every night, and you wake up and they’re dead.”

Davidson and other close-knit unhoused residents that routinely congregate around Civic Center Park knew Corley, 45, an Oklahoman and former mechanic who came to Denver in 2016, as a funny, kind and polite man. His March 3 passing followed the fourth year that deaths of individuals experiencing homelessness increased in the Denver metropolitan area.

Months later, residents voted overwhelmingly against a first-of-its-kind “Right to Survive” measure designed in part to overturn Denver’s seven-year-old ban on camping in tents and sleeping bags in public areas. Ballot measure advocates collaborated with researchers at the University of Colorado Denver on a study that found the ban exacerbates medical problems experienced by those living on the streets by prohibiting any form of cover from the elements, forcing people into unsafe areas and not allowing them to sleep soundly.

Davidson said Denverites must acknowledge that individuals experiencing homelessness are people, too, with basic needs for bathrooms, showers, food and a safe place to rest. “We just want them to treat us like human beings,” he said.

Initiative 300 drew nationwide news coverage and led opponents such as convention and visitors bureau Visit Denver, business coalition Colorado Concern and others to spend $2.4 million to defeat it, according to campaign finance reports filed with the city. The contentious, months-long debate over the measure raised awareness about inadequate resources available to assist an increasing number of people living outside in the metro area.

The highly visible trend, with encampments springing up in many neighborhoods, is one of the most intractable consequences of Denver’s economic success: scores move to the city every month, only to find they cannot afford housing, even if they land employment.

“A constant theme I hear from people is ‘I’m coming to Denver because I need a job,’” said Tom Luehrs, executive director of the Saint Francis Center, a downtown day shelter that serves an average of 750 individuals experiencing homelessness a day. “The challenge is often, ok, they get a job, but where is the housing? Many people will remain homeless at least for a while, even though they are working, before they can find housing they can afford.”

A city audit released during the spring election campaign underscored systemic problems—including understaffing, a lack of data, and lack of a strategic plan with ways to measure performance—that hobbled officials’ ability to effectively tackle homelessness as an issue.

Despite the resounding defeat of the ballot measure, advocates for people experiencing homelessness are capitalizing on heightened public scrutiny, pressing the city to follow through on promises to provide more housing and emergency services, and asking businesses that opposed the measure for monetary and volunteer support.

“We need to make a really huge investment right now. There are far too many people sleeping outside, sleeping in their cars, sleeping in places not meant for human habitation,” said Cathy Alderman, vice president of communications and public policy for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. (The organization did not endorse Initiative 300, calling it a “short-term response to frustrations with the current failed system, responding to the symptoms rather than the cause of the problem.”)

Among Alderman’s top priorities is identifying partners to help formulate a 2020 ballot initiative to raise $50 million for a permanent dedicated funding source to address homelessness in Denver, she said. Advocates are researching how to pay for such a measure, looking to cities in northern California and elsewhere that passed similar efforts.

Meanwhile, the Saint Francis Center, which provides employment, housing, medical and outreach services for homeless individuals, is meeting with area companies to discuss how their employees can volunteer their time, Luehrs said.

“We are looking for an ongoing relationship,” added Luehrs, who said donations from businesses to the center jumped after the election. “We are having conversations with them and saying, ‘Here’s what we need and how can we match up with your business?’”

People who Luehrs’ organization serves are also keeping the issue in the spotlight. Denver Homeless Out Loud, a group that collected signatures to place Initiative 300 on the ballot, launched “100 Days of Action” prior to Mayor Michael Hancock’s third-term inauguration on July 15. The 13-page plan includes detailed steps the city can take to tackle homelessness such as repealing the camping ban, providing bathrooms and showers and changing zoning to allow tents on private property.

“The situation is absolutely dire and the P.R. stunts you see from city officials about all that they are doing is a drop in the bucket,” said Terese Howard, an organizer with the group who lobbied City Council members with other homeless advocates on Aug. 19.

“We are ready now to try things from different angles and try things with new people in power,” she added. “The fact that we have five new members of the council who are much better than many we’ve had before gives us a great opportunity to hopefully get something done.”

About 946 people in the seven-county metro Denver region reported staying in tents, parks, vehicles or underpasses, according to a 2019 point-in-time survey. This figure represents those who are considered unsheltered and is based on people counted by canvassers the cold, snowy evening of Jan. 28. The “Everyone Counts” survey, conducted as part of a nationwide effort that helps inform federal funding, found 5,755 total people experiencing homelessness across the region. Many people counted in this larger population found shelter the night of the survey.

Denver’s shelter system, which may serve up to 1,800 people a night, is sometimes stressed, Chris Conner, director of Denver’s Road Home, said in a June 12 presentation to the City Council’s Safety, Housing, Education & Homelessness committee. There are more than 1,900 beds total available in city-contracted shelters.

Individuals experiencing homelessness said officials could help them by speeding up the process of obtaining one of the scarce housing vouchers made available each year. Such documents take months to procure and then additional time to find a landlord willing to accept them. Arthur Ortiz, who sat in the shade recently at Civic Center Park as he awaited a hot lunch provided by the Catholic charity Christ in the City, is among those in line for a housing voucher.

“I’m waiting for a voucher—I’ve spent at least 20 years on the streets and I just stopped trying to get one for a while,” said Ortiz, 59, who is living temporarily with his nephew while he awaits the paperwork. “I just want to get me a place downtown, I like it here.”

With so many unhoused residents, Denver is facing a “public health crisis,” found the April report by University of Colorado Denver researchers Tony Robinson and Marisa Westbrook, published in collaboration with ballot measure advocates Denver Homeless Out Loud.

Eighty-five percent of the 484 homeless individuals who responded to a poll conducted for the survey reported ailments including frostbite, physical disabilities, dehydration, heat strokes and mental illness. The city lacks adequate housing and shelter options, as well as personal hygiene facilities, to help homeless individuals maintain their health, the study concluded.

The city is responding to calls from homeless advocates to provide more daytime shelter and housing alternatives by issuing requests for proposals to make $15.7 million in improvements to its shelter system and to provide 400 transitional housing vouchers over two years, said Britta Fisher, the City of Denver’s chief housing officer. The city committed $11.2 million, with business groups and community foundations donating $3.5 million. The city is raising the remainder, and encouraging community members to donate.

“These are two things that we believe will impact folks right now in search of services,” Fisher said. “We are hopeful that by the end of the summer those dollars will be at work in the community.”

The housing vouchers will provide places for people to stay as they await their turn on a list for permanent supportive housing or rapid rehousing. Shelter improvements may include new showers, kitchens and places for people to store belongings, as well as longer hours.

Fisher is heading up an effort to combine Denver’s Economic Development & Opportunity’s Housing Division and Denver’s Road Home into a new “Department of Housing and Homelessness,” slated to open in January. In answer to the city audit, the department committed to developing a strategic plan by August 2020, Fisher said, adding that it’s begun the process now by holding focus groups with those involved in addressing the issue.

Fisher emphasized the city made progress over the last seven years in helping the homeless, marking a 25 percent decrease in the overall population to 3,943 in 2019 from 5,271 in 2012. Fisher also pointed to more than $100 million Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration dedicated to create affordable housing. In addition, the city awarded a contract for up to seven peer navigators to help connect homeless individuals to services when they stay at shelters.

There are other improvements shelter providers must make, including ensuring facilities comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and that there is a fair and easy process to request reasonable modifications, said Julie Reiskin, executive director of the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition (a current Colorado Trust grantee).

“Fifty-seven percent of people who are chronically homeless are people with an identified disability,” she said. “They need clear ways to get exceptions to rules that don’t work—whether it’s that they can’t get moving quickly in the morning, or that they need to bring a personal care attendant into a shelter with them.”

Reiskin and Howard, of Denver Homeless Out Loud, agreed radical change won’t happen until the public understands that being homeless is not a personal failing, but an economic and social justice issue.

“It has to be done with the right spokespeople building a narrative through a publicity campaign,” said Reiskin. “The LGBTQ community has done a fantastic job of changing the narrative over the years, but they had a lot of money and the homeless community doesn’t.”

A surge in unhoused residents isn’t unique to Denver, with Boulder, Centennial, Colorado Springs, Longmont and Parker also instituting camping bans in an effort to stem an influx of people sleeping on city-owned property.

Representatives on the 13-member Metro Denver Homeless Initiative believe that the controversy over Initiative 300 also brought to the fore the fact that the city and nonprofits are ill-equipped to serve many folks on the streets.

“I think it’s really important for us looking forward to have a dialogue about what homelessness is comprehensively, and not just what you see on the street corner,” said Christina Carlson, chief executive officer at Urban Peak, a nonprofit that provides a wide range of services for young people experiencing homelessness.

“We are pushing the city to think about what are the various subpopulations, and how are they unique, and how are we serving them,” Carlson said, adding that the 31-year-old organization is seeing more demand for affordable housing and mental health services than it has in the past.

Urban Peak tries to reach clients before they experience homelessness when they are unstably housed, rather than after they are on the streets, Carlson added. The organization also sends outreach workers into the city to meet youth and build relationships with them to connect them with services and resources.

These workers are part of the Denver Street Outreach Collaborative, which includes representatives from the city, Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, Saint Francis Center and Urban Peak. About 21 staff members work through the collaborative to build relationships with people on the street to provide crisis intervention and connect them to housing, public benefits, clothing, food, and medical and mental health care.

Elisabeth Francis, a clinical outreach worker at the Saint Francis Center, is a six-year veteran of this team. She visits clients on the streets around Civic Center Park and the 16th Street Mall most weekdays.

“So many folks who are outside have lost their social support network and they don’t feel any sense of connection to the outside world,” said Francis as she wheeled a cart full of water, black socks and information sheets detailing medical and other services around the park on a recent July day.

She approached Davidson as he stood in the median at North Broadway and Colfax Avenue.

“Uh, oh, I’m in trouble now,” joked Davidson, who talks with Francis most days. He and Francis are awaiting word on the status of a housing voucher she helped him apply for more than a month ago.

“I’d like to apply for a culinary job,” said Davidson. “I’m not giving up.”

Jennifer Oldham
Journalist
Denver, Colorado