Denver, CO

Jobs, sobriety don't always help Denver's homeless find housing

David Heitz

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By David Heitz / NewsBreak Denver

(Denver, Colo.) When the City and County of Denver hands millions to non-profits to place people experiencing homelessness, only a fraction get housed.

That's because Denver's homelessness problem is massive.

Cathy Alderman, spokesperson for Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, said the Annual Point in Time count released last week only scratched the problem's surface. While that survey showed about 6,500 people living in shelters, it did not count those living on the street.

For a more realistic census of people experiencing homelessness, multiply the Point in Time count by three or 3.5, Alderman said. "We don't have the resources to house everyone who needs it."

Alderman said the city offers one housing voucher for every four people who need them.

This year's Point in Time count takes place Wednesday. Surveyors will count those living in encampments from 4 a.m. to 10 a.m. The Metro Denver Homeless Initiative conducts the annual census of homeless people.

Who gets selected for housing?

Street outreach workers regularly visit encampments and share resources with anyone who will listen. So, if someone lives in an encampment, how can they best advocate for themselves to get housing?

Alderman suggests first trusting case managers and street outreach teams. "They're not trying to force you to do something," she said.

Outreach workers strive to build trust with encampment dwellers.

Alderman said outreach workers meet many people frustrated by trying to get housing. They struggle with the selection process and give up.

How safe outdoor spaces can help

Safe outdoor spaces may offer a better solution for people living in encampments. Safe outdoor spaces provide supervised parking lots holding dozens of durable tents for use by people experiencing homelessness.

Alderman said when someone goes from an encampment to a safe outdoor space, they see how much better life can be with a spot to keep all their things, three meals a day and restroom access.

Safe outdoor spaces provide "what they knew in a safe, more controlled environment," Alderman said.

Alderman said the waiting list for housing is about 18 months. However, she knows some clients have been waiting in shelters for two years for housing. "Don't give up, even though it's going to be incredibly frustrating," she recommended to those still waiting for help.

Sobriety, employment won't help for Coalition housing

Being sober or employed isn't going to help you with Coalition housing. The group assesses applicants using the VISPDAT survey. The survey determines how a person became homeless and what prevents them from accessing housing.

People who are more vulnerable due to age, mental or physical illness, or other factors get priority. Someone who is sober, and works is less vulnerable, Alderman said.

Some smaller housing programs require sobriety and a willingness to work. Alderman said those programs often enjoy great success.

The Coalition, however, believes in a "Housing First" approach, which means meeting people where they are. If you supply housing first, the philosophy goes, other services such as help looking for a job and getting sober will lead to greater success once the Coalition stabilizes a client.

Why so many live on the street

Meanwhile, many people continue living on the street. Despite the widespread belief that there is a shelter bed for everyone, that is not true, Alderman said.

When someone says a bed is available, "They may mean putting a mat on the floor, which may not work for everybody. Shelters were meant to be an emergency solution, and we've come to rely on them."

Apply for help

People experiencing homelessness who have internet access can apply for housing online. Those with mental illness can use this link. Unhoused people without a mental illness can use this link. Families should use this link.

People experiencing homelessness also may line up early outside the Coalition office at 2100 Broadway. Doors open at 8 a.m. Monday through Friday. Only the first eight people to arrive each day can apply for housing due to COVID restrictions.

"They may have to wait in that line six weeks in a row," Alderman said.

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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 local newspapers in the country. Today, I report on Denver City Hall, homelessness and other topics for NewsBreak, much like I did in my twenties covering Newport Beach, Calif. for the Daily Pilot. I consider myself a lucky guy to still be doing what I love after so many years.

Denver, CO
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