Denver’s homeless outreach: how a city tackled its hard-to-reach population

The city’s mayor Ed Murray released an inaugural homeless strategy in 2015 and 2013. The city last year spent almost $19m in emergency homeless funds to run various supports programs. In 2015, Denver voted…

Denver's homeless outreach: how a city tackled its hard-to-reach population

The city’s mayor Ed Murray released an inaugural homeless strategy in 2015 and 2013.

The city last year spent almost $19m in emergency homeless funds to run various supports programs. In 2015, Denver voted to allocate $1m to expand the size of the homeless operating budget to $2.2m in 2018. That city budget also covers health, mental health and shelter services.

Subsidies

Programs funded through the city’s emergency funds include the new Care Center, which provides short-term housing for homeless people who are in danger of losing their shelter beds. There are 11 centers across the city, which operate all day and accommodate 60 people at a time. A crucial part of the Care Center’s model is the refurbishment of derelict buildings across the city, which provide offices, housing, showers and storage for the program’s volunteers. “Our mission is to transform the lives of homeless men and women,” said Brent Saunders, the Care Center’s director of long-term housing.

Safe outdoor spaces

In a bid to prevent homeless people from gathering, and to help businesses and residents get rid of trash and other nuisances, the city’s first Homeless Outreach Response Task Force started working in Five Points in December 2015. The task force set up around the corner from a bike shop on Champa Street, turning the empty lot into a 10-foot-wide “container park” with shipping containers housing a small kitchen, tents, chairs and benches.

Forever Homes in Clayton Park to address Denver’s homeless problem. Photograph: Charlie Riedel/AP

Forever Homes in Clayton Park, in Denver’s South Five Points, launched with the same goal as Five Points. The idea is to transform vacant land in South Five Points into a therapeutic space that can lead to permanent housing for homeless people. One barrier to using vacant land as permanent housing is that property owners must give the city 24-hour notice before they agree to sell it, which can sometimes take up to 30 days. “We wanted to get to a place where we had a vacant lot turned into a shelter,” said Erin Robertson, executive director of Forever Homes.

Restoring a sense of connection

Over the past five years, Denver has seen an unprecedented increase in homeless people in Five Points and other parts of North Denver. “In the last several years, we’ve had a lot of new housing units,” said Adelaide Roelike, deputy director of public information for the city’s mayor’s office. In addition to the Care Center and Forever Homes, the city has put some money towards permanent housing. Specifically, Denver has awarded Community Sanity Fellowship a $176,000 contract to develop 19 one-bedroom apartments in Five Points. The hope is that residents will become connected to the services that are provided and use them to get into permanent housing.

People living on the streets in Denver, Colorado, in December 2018. Photograph: Mark Peterson/Redux Pictures for the Guardian

Housing is the cornerstone

The city allocated $1.7m to help Denver businesses that have cash-flow issues in the winter. As part of the project, the city distributed $961,431 to improve the sidewalks in North Denver, and another $130,000 to maintain services and provide emergency generators to one health center in Five Points. Other improvements to Five Points include a winter warming shelter with food and clothing services, and “a foster program” with a focus on youth.

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Outreach is crucial

Housing and outreach work can go hand in hand, but awareness of the need to provide shelter for the homeless people is growing, said Thompson. “We want to be sensitive,” she said. “A lot of people support how we’re trying to address the homeless population. But there are still people who aren’t aware that we have this population [in Five Points] and how we are trying to address it.”

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