Mayors and governors across the nation are rolling out plans – both novel and tried – to prevent America’s homeless crisis from developing into permanent ghettos the likes of which the U.S. hasn’t seen since the Great Depression.
The number of homeless encampments in the Denver-metro area began growing in both number and size starting in the spring of 2020. The October 2022 point-in-time count of homeless individuals in the region, found 6,884 people experiencing homelessness, and of those 4,806 were staying in shelters. That means 2,078 people were choosing to stay outdoors, many utilizing public rights of way for make-shift shelters.
Helping the thousands of individuals who, absent other housing options, choose to camp in urban settings has proven to be intractable – overnight emergency shelters have room, but even on the coldest nights there are still those who refuse this most basic of services.
For decades, the policy in America has been housing first, but that policy is often manifest by a shelter bed that is vacated in the morning and not available again until night. The intent of housing first is to offer real 24-hour housing stability, not just a shelter bed at night.
Emergency shelters are essential for keeping people safe, but more real housing is needed, fortunately, Denver is working toward growing the transitional and long-term housing supply.
The City of Denver’s five-year strategic plan calls for creating 900 supportive housing units for the homeless, using methods like purchasing old hotels and converting them into assisted living programs. After stalled negotiations, Denver is finalizing the purchase of the Stay Inn hotel in the Central Park neighborhood to be used as 96 transitional housing beds. The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless just purchased a 217-room hotel for both transitional housing and long-term supported housing.
But there is also a question of whether there is enough “support” in these housing plans.
In New York, Mayor Eric Adams has announced a plan to push for drastic intervention when homeless individuals are suffering from acute mental health crises — involuntary hospitalization until a plan can be created for long-term treatment and care.
Closer to home, the City of Aurora, led by Mayor Mike Coffman, is pushing hard for a regional homeless service center that would focus on what he calls a “jobs first” model of getting people who need help the treatment and care they need before entering housing. The plan is not without its opponents, who fear setting up barriers to housing will mean more people on the streets in the cold or the heat.
We see sense in a model where both housing-first and treatment-first models operate side by side. It’s a vision shared by Aurora City Councilmember Dustin Zvonek, who wants to see increased mental health and addiction treatment for homeless individuals in the Denver Metro. It’s a model that he says recognizes that the biggest obstacle standing between people and stability is not acquiring housing but the challenges of chronic drug use and untreated illnesses like schizophrenia and manic depression.
Some view this as a tough-love approach, requiring treatment as a condition of housing. We know from addiction treatment programs that often a tough love or love first approach is needed for people to acknowledge there is a problem and seek help.
It’s part of the reason why drug courts used to divert individuals suffering from addiction to drugs out of the criminal justice system and into detox and treatment programs.
The obvious problem, of course, is that even the wealthiest Americans are struggling to get adequate mental health and addiction treatment. America simply does not have the infrastructure in place to accommodate our opiate and drug epidemic alongside a mental health crisis, both likely fueled by the pandemic.
Zvonek’s plea is for federal dollars set aside for “housing first” programs be made available to treatment-focused programs, including a planned one-stop homeless center in Aurora. We also think that Medicaid and Medicare dollars need to be freed up to pay for much more robust mental health and rehab treatment. Those are both complex federal issues that Congress may struggle to sort out.
But at the local level, we hope Denver and Aurora collaborate to meld the housing-first model that could give people a safe place to land at converted hotels/motels during or immediately after receiving the treatment they need to stabilize their lives.
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