Opinion: Homeless coalition client interviews retiring CEO Parvensky

David Heitz

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Colorado Coalition for the Homeless CEO John Parvensky is retiring.Colorado Coalition for the Homeless

By David Heitz / NewsBreak Denver

(Denver, Colo.) John Parvensky makes a lot of money overseeing Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. But then, he’s CEO of a non-profit health care and housing system with dozens of properties.

I wrote once about Parvenksy’s $343,000 annual salary. I think he earns every penny.

I am a client of Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, in the interest of full disclosure. Parvensky, who is retiring after four decades, has been interviewed by probably a dozen reporters in the past month. But I’m the first person to interview him who also lives at a Coalition property.

Giving Parvensky an earful

I friended Parvensky on LinkedIn about two years ago. I was happy he accepted my invitation.

Again, in the interest of full disclosure, several times I took complaints about living at Fusion Studios directly to Parvensky via LinkedIn. I admit this probably was not entirely appropriate, but John accepted my criticisms without being defensive. He treated me the way the manager of a business would treat a customer.

Nobody ever chewed me out for reaching out to Parvensky. And the complaints I had about Fusion all have been addressed. In fact, Fusion recently welcomed several full-time case workers with offices here in the building. With on-site supports in place, problems don’t arise with residents as often. There is less angst in the building when everyone’s needs are being met.

Parvensky discusses drugs, City Hall, President Reagan

As a person once homeless myself, I asked Parvensky questions about how we got to where we are. Parvensky famously likes to explain when he began in social services, he and his co-workers thought they were going to solve homelessness.

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John Parvensky, early yeras.Colorado Coalition for the Homeless

And despite spending about half a billion dollars per year addressing homelessness in Denver, according to the Common Sense Institute, the problem is getting worse.

For the record, several organizations dispute the CSI report. Metro Denver Homeless Initiative released a statement. "The recent report issued by the Common Sense Institute is neither valid nor reliable in determining the economic footprint of homelessness," the statement reads.

“MDHI identified several limitations and inaccuracies which were the basis of this report to the researchers during the design phase of this report,” said Dr. Matt Meyer, executive director of MDHI. “However, the researchers chose to move forward fully aware of these limitations which led
to MDHI’s decision not participate.”

Parvensky remains positive. Here are answers he provided to my questions.

Q: Is harm reduction and Housing First cheating homeless people out of a sober life? This is an argument that occasionally gets made during public comment period at City Council meetings.

A: Housing First is a harm reduction approach that provides housing as the foundational component of recovery for those with mental health or addiction. For too long, the homeless system targeted limited housing resources to those who were judged “housing ready” or “likely to succeed.” Those who were not willing to address their mental health or addiction as a condition of housing were screened out and left behind. They became the chronically homeless population who were left behind, dying on the streets, with worse mental health conditions.

While providing housing is not enough, the Housing First philosophy is that once someone is housed, and no longer fighting for survival and a place to live, they can then focus on their recovery through the health and mental health services provided once in housing. For some, it takes longer to realize that if they want a different and better outcome for their lives, they need to engage in these services and address their mental health and addiction. But, if we were to screen these folks out, or move them quickly back to the streets, the likelihood that their conditions would improve is negligible.

We do provide recovery housing at our program at Fort Lyon, where up to 200 people who were chronically homeless are living in a supported recovery community. Not everyone is successful, but that is the nature of addiction.

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Fort Lyon addiction treatment center.Colorado Coalition for the Homeless

Colorado has few mechanisms to force someone into mental health or drug treatment. Someone has to be a “danger to themselves or others” and courts are reluctant to order someone into treatment. Therefore, our focus is on motivational interviewing, working with those we serve to help them envision a better life, and help them take the steps to achieve it. It often takes longer than we would like, but without stable housing, we find people are not even able to contemplate such a life.

Q: How has the city response to homelessness changed through the years? How can it be improved?

A: The City's response to homelessness has improved greatly in recent years in some ways, but still is lacking in others. The City has consolidated its housing and homeless programs in a way that allocates resources in accordance with an informed strategic plan. The voters authorized more funding for homelessness resolution, and these funds have been used in addition to new COVID related funding to expand and improve emergency shelter and create more supportive housing opportunities. However, continued street sweeping has diverted resources from real solutions, and has been counterproductive. The funding devoted to affordable housing and homelessness is still a fraction of what is needed to meet the needs of everyone on the streets or in shelters.

Q: How do you stay positive when homeless people themselves can be so negative and so angry? How have you not become burnt out?

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John Parvensky enjoys a lighthearted moment with Coalition staff.Colorado Coalition for the Homeless

A: I was drawn to this work due to my belief and commitment to social justice. I have found that most people experiencing homelessness are good-hearted and kind individuals who are grateful for the help we provide. Of course, some are angry, sometimes due to their situation, their mental health, or their addiction. But that is the case with people I meet in government, neighborhoods, and other communities.

We have helped thousands of people to move to stable housing over the past 30 years. It is this success, despite the continuing needs and frustrations, that keep me from burning out.

Q: What is the biggest misconception that people have about the Coalition? There’s the old saying the Coalition never will solve homelessness because it will put them out of business.

A: When we started the Coalition, we thought we would work our way out of our jobs as we addressed the drivers of increased homelessness in the mid 1980s. After ten years, we realized that the forces creating homelessness were greater than our ability to prevent it. We then turned our attention to creating lasting solutions -- facilities and housing that would be needed for the long term to address homelessness.

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John Parvesnky addresses Coalition supporters.Colorado Coalition for the Homeless

A significant amount of our work is focused on keeping people we have housed healthy and housed. Even if everyone on the streets or in shelters were housed overnight, a significant number would still need the health care, mental health care, employment services, and other supports to keep their housing and improve their lives. That will continue to be our focus as we reduce and end homelessness.

Q: Homeless people have short lifespans. I bet you have lost a lot of clients and friends to the street.

A: People experiencing homelessness have a life expectancy that is about 75 percent of those who are housed. That is due to both the trauma and experience of living on the streets, as well as the long-term impact of addiction and mental illness. We find that once we house people who have been on the streets for years, many die in their housing, as the toll taken by life on the streets cannot be reversed. That is why we have invested so much in integrated health care and bringing health care to folks on the streets as well as to those now living in our housing.

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Fusion Studios, one of many apartment buildings for people experiencing homelessness owned by the Coalition.David Heitz

Q: Per capita and in today’s dollars, is the city/state spending more or less on solving homelessness than in years past?

A: This is a difficult thing to answer, as there has been a significant increase in one-time funding due to COVID and the federal recovery act funding flowing through the city and state. The baseline for Denver has increased with Measure 2B passing in 2020 adding $40 million for homelessness resolution. The state has also appropriated more for affordable housing and homelessness. However, federal, state, and local funding continue to be a fraction of what is needed to create sufficient affordable housing and support services needed to solve homelessness.

Q: You originally thought homeless would be temporary when you got into this line of work and blamed Reagan. My parents always used to say Reagan created homelessness, too. Can you explain what happened?

The Reagan administration significantly cut the HUD budget for affordable housing and other health and mental health services in the 1980s. This funding has never been restored, and we are still spending much less now in these areas, adjusting for inflation and population growth.

Reagan did not close the mental institutions. Rather, it was a series of decisions based on the consensus that most people with mental illness did not need to be institutionalized but could live well in community-based settings with access to appropriate mental health treatment. Unfortunately, the funding for the community-based housing and mental health services never kept up with the needs, and many who might otherwise be stuck in institutions are now living on the streets or in shelters.

Q: Do other Coalition clients hunt you down and complain about things like I did? I was incredibly impressed with how you handled me!

A: I have interacted and worked with our clients over the years, and have been moved by their stories, their concerns, their lives, and their dreams. We have included clients on our Board of Directors from the beginning and believe that we must listen and understand. We have so many committed staff working as hard as they can to help, many times without the resources or support they need to do what we ask of them. I try not to get between them and those they serve, but rather help lift the voices of both towards solutions that work for everyone.

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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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