Denver, CO

Denver leads U.S. in federal homeless money

David Heitz

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A recent news report by the watchdog publication Grist shows Denver has received $111 million in federal money to house people experiencing homelessness during COVID-19.

It’s the most money any government in the country has received other than the County of Los Angeles, which received a total of $198 million. Chicago received $67 million.

By far it's the most per capita.

“Two weeks after the United States began its first coronavirus lockdown in March 2020, then-President Donald Trump instructed the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, to reimburse cities, counties, and tribes for 75 percent of costs related to housing homeless people in unoccupied hotels, as well as administering COVID-19 tests to those without housing,” Grist reported “When Joe Biden assumed the presidency in January, he increased coverage to include fees related to vaccinating homeless populations and also guaranteed that reimbursements would now retroactively cover 100 percent of related expenses.

“In theory, the program would both curb the spread of the novel coronavirus and also protect the more than 580,000 people experiencing homelessness at any given time from the variety of threats that come without steady access to housing. For the 225,000 homeless people living without formal shelter of any kind on a given night, encounters with extreme weather events, pollution and policing can be uniquely deadly.”

Most of nation’s cities pass on homeless money

Yet despite this, homeless people stayed out in the cold after a storm knocked out Texas’ hotel industry. Some of them died.

“As Winter Storm Uri descended upon the U.S. South in mid-February, leaving millions of people without water and electricity across at least seven states, more than half of Texas 500,000 hotel rooms were unoccupied and not a single municipality in the state had requested funds to house people living on the streets,” Grist reported. “As temperatures in the Lone Star State dropped to 20 degrees, dozens of unhoused people were left frostbitten and hospitalized and at least six were found dead.”

It seems most of the country wasn’t interested in the free federal money to house the homeless. According to Grist, red tape keeps many communities away. The application guidelines for the money is extensive. Many cities lack the staff power and expertise to comply with such requirements.

Los Angeles, Chicago, Denver and Seattle accounted for 80 percent of the federal monies awarded. Grist reached out for comment to places like New York City, which has a massive homeless problem but did not apply for any of the money. They did not get a response.

“But leaked reports show that dysfunction within city leadership led to the city passing on funds while COVID-19 spread through at least 94 percent of the city’s shelters, and 60 people living in the facilities died,” according to Grist.

Less than 25 municipalities nationwide applied for the money.

Denver blazes trail with hotel purchase

Not only has Denver led the way in providing temporary hotel rooms for the homeless during COVID, but the city intends to leverage millions more in federal money for permanent homeless housing. Mayor Michael Hancock and Congresswoman Diana DeGette recently announced the city bought the former Stay Inn in Central Park for homeless housing.

Several Denver non-profits, such as Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, already own property that is rented to homeless at free or reduced rent. Once people get into the housing program and access services, many will receive Social Security or obtain jobs. They then will pay 30 percent of their income for rent.

Denver also has seen success with two sanctioned campsites in the city for people experiencing homelessness. Two new sites are set to open soon. Sanctioned campsites include ice fishing tents with heaters, restroom facilities and garbage pickup. The campsites have 24-hour supervision.

Despite all the city is spending on services for people experiencing homelessness, thousands remain without housing. Many are stuck in cycles of substance abuse and mental illness. By providing people experiencing homelessness with housing first, the philosophy goes, addiction and mental illness can be addressed next with wraparound services.

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I have been in the news business more than 30 years, spending much of my career at some of the best newspapers in the country. Today, I specialize in Denver local news, health reporting, social justice issues, addiction/recovery/mental health news, and topics surrounding homelessness and human trafficking.

Denver, CO
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