Opinion: Homeless and disabled face dangers on street

David Heitz

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By David Heitz / NewsBreak Denver

(Denver, Colo.) If you think homelessness sounds like a struggle, imagine undergoing chemotherapy while living on the street.

It happens. Homeless people get cancer. A woman named Brittany who did not give her last name appeared before the Denver City Council recently explaining she has only 18 months to live. She currently spends that time unhoused.

She said she wants her final days to be happy. But that’s difficult with nowhere to go to the bathroom, she said. She said security guards on 16th Street Mall are rude, saying one told her “it would be better if the homeless died off.”

Brittany said she has waited six years for housing, to no avail. “We don’t like living on the streets. It’s not something we choose to do.”

Seventy-five percent of homeless report disability

Colorado Coalition for the Homeless recently gave a webinar on homelessness and disabilities as part of its ongoing education series. In Colorado, 75 percent of people experiencing homelessness report having at least one disability, according to the coalition.

I recall many people with disabilities from my time unhoused. I remember a man in a wheelchair with no legs. He found a way to lower himself out of the chair and unto the ground each night. He slept in the doorway of a business with his wheelchair pulled right up against him. I am not sure how he safely got back into his wheelchair each day.

During the seminar, one of the panelists spoke about a man who had no legs whose wheelchair got stolen. Health care workers found themselves in emergency mode trying to locate the man a chair.

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Other people experiencing homelessness have lost limbs but don’t have a prosthetic. Resources are scarce and transportation to be fitted for a prosthetic can be difficult.

Homeless people age faster

Many disabled homeless people are elderly. Many have aged into their disability, which may include problems getting around, loss of hearing and even dementia. People experiencing homelessness have a much shorter lifespan than the national average. Their bodies and minds get beaten up on the street. So, they are more likely to be chronically homeless.

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For the purposes of the webinar, the Coalition defined disability as “A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.”

I recall a spot in LoDo where I used to sleep during homelessness. A young man camped next to me with his “caregiver,” who also was homeless. He told me she managed his money for him. Sometimes they would fight about the money.

Homeless caring for homeless

I always wondered how someone who is homeless could care for another person. But you see homeless caregivers all the time. Colorado is one of a dozen states that pays friends or family of the disabled to be caregivers.

According to the Coalition, 61 million adults – more than a quarter of the population – suffers from a disability. They are twice as likely not to have a high school diploma as the non-disabled. They face barriers to education and 71 percent are unemployed, according to the Coalition.

Although many disabled people get a government check each month, It’s under $900 for singles and $1,300 for couples. The money helps keep people with disabilities out of extreme poverty but isn’t enough to pay rent.

Housing for people with disabilities lacking

The poverty rate for people with disabilities is more than double the national average, or 27 percent, according to the Coalition. Housing is available but limited. Usually, apartments are in poor condition, with leaky roofs, damaged walls and more. Chronic homelessness in Denver spiked 266 percent from 2007 to 2021, according to the Point in Time survey. The national increase in chronic homeless during that period was 6 percent.

Most complaints about housing discrimination – 55 percent -- come from people with disabilities, according to the Coalition. That’s more than double the rate of complaints from any other protected class.

Taking part in the Coalition’s panel discussion last week were Dawn Howard, Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition; Dr. Julie Knoeckel of Denver Health, who specializes in hospital medicine, and Miriah Nunnaley, director of recuperative care for Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.

“The fact there is such little data helps reinforce how difficult the lives are that these individuals live,” Nunnaley said. “We can’t call people who don’t have a phone and we can’t find people who don’t have housing.”

‘I’ve seen it all’

Howard agreed that transportation to medical appointments is difficult for people with disabilities. “People certainly try their hardest to be on time, but if the bus is late, it’s really not their fault.”

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Some people don’t identify as disabled, Nunnaley said. “How often am I really understanding whether a perceived disability is present in a patient I’m seeing?” she wondered. “I’m not surprised by the overall paucity of data around the intersection of disability and homelessness.”

As a result, Nunnaley said, little is known about the circumstances people face. “There are so many unique scenarios. Sometimes you think ‘I’ve seen it all.' We are put in a place where we are really asked to solve deficits.”

Nunnaley said homeless people must deal with angst all day long. She said statistics show they are more likely to be victims of violent crime. “They already are struggling to survive and then they have to deal with their own safety.”

Coalition to reopen respite center

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Renaissance Legacy Lofts and Stout Street Recuperative Care Facility.Colorado Coalition for the Homeless

Meantime, the Coalition soon will open a recuperative care center near its Stout Street Clinic. Homeless people undergoing chemotherapy will have a place to rest. The same goes for people who have surgeries. I suffered a hernia during homelessness, for example. The pain used to be unbearable, especially during cold weather. I still have the hernia, but now that I am housed it doesn’t bother me as much.

On the floors above the recuperation center will be permanent supportive housing. People with disabilities will receive case management and wraparound health services. I live in a similar Coalition property called Fusion studios. I pay 30 percent of my income for rent. I found a writing job shortly after becoming housed and continue to work.

It's difficult to work if unhoused

It’s almost impossible to hold down a job without housing. I remember a blind man who stayed at Salvation Army homeless shelter. I used to constantly fear for his safety. At the time, this person had no income.

Supportive housing can be expensive, as is making apartment units friendly to people with disabilities. “It costs a few thousand dollars more per unit,” Howard said. All of the units at the Coalition’s recuperative care center will be disability friendly.

Howard described the disability community as “a minority group anyone can join,” adding, “You never know who will be born into it or age into it.”

Shelters not equipped for sick, disabled

Knoechel said hospital services sometimes are needed due to inadequate housing. She said it demonstrates the “structural inadequacy of the environment.”

Problems arise in the shelter environment. Shelters aren’t equipped for people on oxygen or night-time requirements like CPAP machines. Service animals aren’t allowed.

Some people are diabetic. Managing the illness can be difficult for people living on the street. Other people have terminal illnesses but continue to live on the street. “It’s really awful to die in a shelter or on the street,” Nunnaley said.

So, what can be done long-term to help people with disabilities who are homeless? “We need to elect individuals who will fight for our community … and demand accountability to get laws enacted and changed,” Nunnaley said. “This is a manmade problem, so humans have to fix this.”

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I've been in the news business 35 years, spending much of my career in editing roles at local newspapers in Los Angeles, Detroit, and the Quad-Cities of Illinois and Iowa. Upon moving to Denver in 2018, I began experiencing severe mental illness due to several traumatic experiences. I became homeless on the street for about a year before spending time in the state mental hospital. I am living proof that people can rebound from mental illness with proper treatment, even after experiencing homelessness. I consider myself a lucky guy to live in a great place like Denver. I hope my writing reflects the passion I have for living here.

Denver, CO
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