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May 2015 • Online Edition

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The Road Home Is Still Long For Denver’s Homeless | Print |  E-mail

by Eric Peterson

Denver’s Road Home is in year eight of a 10-year plan to eliminate homelessness in Denver.

The initiative of the City and County of Denver has made some serious strides, adding nearly 3,000 new housing opportunities and preventing over 6,000 families and individuals from becoming homeless in those eight years.

Not everyone, however, is pleased with the pace of progress. The Unauthorized Camping Ordinance (UCO), better known as the urban camping ban – which was approved in May 2012 by City Council in a 9-4 vote, making it illegal for people to sleep outside anywhere in the city covered by anything at all, including blankets, plastic, and cardboard – came with a promise to boost services for the homeless. The city subsequently increased bed counts by making a seasonal shelter year-round and helping partners boost capacity, but critics say it’s not enough.

Some  opponents of the ban have taken matters into their own hands. Activists with Occupy Denver have boycotted and picketed downtown businesses that supported the ban, first Snooze, and subsequently The Denver Palm. Both restaurants rescinded their support of the ban after months of protest – Snooze in April and The Palm in mid-October, one day before activists were set to launch an international boycott of all 30 Palm restaurant locations.

Regardless who supports the urban camping ban, the number of homeless people in metro Denver has been stuck on a plateau of about 12,000 in recent years. The Metro Denver Homeless Initiative’s last “point in time” head count tallied more than 11,167 homeless people in the metro area on Jan. 13, 2013, and 65 percent of that total were families. This tally was comparable to surveys in 2011 and 2012 but notably higher than it was five years ago.

“The number of homeless people seems to be increasing,” says Tom Luehrs, executive director of St. Francis Center of Denver. “It’s pretty obvious around the city. They’re just seeing more and more people sleeping outside, all over town, wherever they can find a space.”

The St. Francis Center, 2323 Curtis St., sfcdenver.com, offers permanent housing to chronically homeless individuals at its Cornerstone Residences downtown and other facilities on Capitol Hill. Many other nonprofits have added housing and shelter, but Luehrs says more is needed.

“Even though we have more beds than we did two years ago, we’re not able to give everyone overnight shelter,” he says. “When winter is coming around, like it is now, it’s really tough to be homeless.”

What’s causing the spike? “A whole lot of people are falling out of the new economic system,” says Luehrs.

St. Francis Center also has an employment office, and day services for 740 people a day, up from 690 last year. “Last year we hit a high mark for getting 219 people full-time, permanent employment,” says Luehrs. And he’s seeing more educated and skilled people fall into homelessness in recent years -- “people who have never experienced poverty,” he says. “That indicates a different demographic of people who have ended up in homelessness.”

Part of the problem is a metro-wide dearth of affordable housing. “What’s happening is, people have vouchers [from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] and they can’t find housing,” he says. “Affordable housing is grabbed up quickly -- everybody’s looking for it. People can be making $50,000 and not find a place to rent.”

“We’re just not having enough housing built,” Luehrs adds. “We need shelter because the housing is not available.”

He says the “tug of war” between the need for shelter versus housing is impacted by the city’s delay on new rest and resource centers, that have yet to become a reality.

“We’re still waiting for that,” says Luehrs. “The city is planning to have two shelters, one for men with 200 beds, and 100 beds for women. A lot of people are wondering when it’s going to happen.”

The age-old snag is the not in my backyard mentality about homeless shelters. Council-district politics have stymied progress. Churches have opened their doors for women overnight, and the St. Francis Center of Denver shuttles 20 homeless women from downtown and back, but there is much more need, says Luehrs.

A telling stat, he continues, is that more than half of people the St. Francis Center helps don’t come back in the next 45 days. “One support could be all they need,” says Luehrs. “For some it’s just using our telephone. For others, it’s a shower so they look presentable for an interview. They just need a bridge to help them move on.”

“A lot of people have this image of homelessness – maybe an old man, shaggy, walking down the street,” says Luehrs. Reality defies stereotypes. “There are so many faces to homelessness.”

Earlier this year, RedLine’s “Not Exactly” exhibit delved into this wide array of faces by showcasing the artwork of the homeless artists and others “not exactly” homeless. The Denver Art Society has an exhibit to raise awareness of homelessness through Nov. 8 at its gallery at 734 Santa Fe Dr., with a focus on homeless kids.

Urban Peak has a 40-bed shelter for homeless youth in Denver and offers outreach and educational programs and other services. “We’re the only organization in the state that has the convergence of all those services for youth,” says Dan Hanley, Urban Peak’s director of development and public affairs.

Hanley says the point in time survey for homeless youth jumped from 777 in 2012 to 921 this year, an 18 percent increase.

“All the issues just keep getting worse,” says Hanley. He says kids who “age out” of foster care often have nowhere to go. “There’s nothing for them, nothing at all,” he laments. Hanley also says homeless young adults aged 21 to 25 are especially susceptible to abuse.

Due to its geographic isolation and proximity to Mexico, he adds, “Denver’s one of the biggest sex-trafficking hubs in the country and that’s not changing.”

On Dec. 10, Urban Peak is organizing the 921 Project at its offices at 21st and Stout. “We’re asking for 921 volunteers to come here,” Hanley says. “We’re closing the street and doing a photo shoot.”

Of the young people, he says, “There’s a perception they didn’t listen to their parents, or they wanted to be, quote-unquote free. I don’t see that. The vast majority of youth on the streets feel safer there than their own home.”

Hanley says Denver’s outdoor lovers can help. “What we really need are sleeping bags and blankets and anything you need to keep warm outside,” he says. “Fashions change and camping gear changes.”

Donations can be made to Urban Peak’s administrative offices at 730 21st St. Volunteers for the 921 Project and other programs can find more information at urbanpeak.org.

Adds Hanley: “Each of us as an individual can take a look inside of ourselves and not judge youth who are experiencing homelessness right now.”

Robert Hudson was homeless due to “family situations” last fall and winter. Now that he’s off the streets, he’s gotten involved with the issue as an activist with Denver Homeless Out Loud.

Homeless Out Loud was organized in 2012 as a direct result of the urban camping ban. The group recently interviewed more than 500 homeless people in Denver about the ban’s impact.

“It proved it was worse,” says Hudson of the interview results. “The police are allowed to cuff up the homeless for pretty much anything.

“The City and County of Denver have not improved services at all,” he adds. “The city needs to step it up. It really comes down to funding. They think they’re in their perfect world and the law is perfect. They need to get more involved.”

City spokesperson Jamie Bradley says the camping ban serves the purpose of connecting homeless to shelter, and notes that the city has worked with its partners to increase shelter capacity by 600 beds since spring 2012. She says the city will hire more mental health professionals and launch a $3 million fund for affordable housing in 2014, as well as create a rest-and-resource station and other facilities – if City Council approves the funding.

“Since the UCO went into effect, the city has implemented several items aimed at increasing shelter capacity, while expanding services,” explains Bradley. “We realize there is still more work to be done, and are committed to partnering with our community to improve service delivery for our most vulnerable population.”

Denver might look to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) as a model. The VA made ending veteran homelessness a priority in 2009. Since that time, vet homelessness has dropped by 17.2 percent. The budget for relevant programs totaled about $6 billion this fiscal year.

“Vet homelessness has taken a nosedive,” says the St. Francis Center’s Luehrs. “Given the resources, we can make an impact and make homelessness something that’s in the past.”

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