Denver, CO

Opinion: Recovery in Denver homeless housing needed

David Heitz

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A column in the Colorado Sun Oct. 22 caught my attention. The writer advocated for “Rehabilitation First” for people experiencing homelessness.

Rehabilitation First is a philosophy that people who experience homelessness suffer from addiction and need substance abuse treatment if they are to succeed in housing. Aurora recently charted a “Rehabilitation First” approach. That doesn’t mean people who aren’t sober have to sleep outside. But cities with a Rehabilitation First approach tend to stockpile those not willing to undergo treatment in congregant shelters. Those who agree to treatment get better, more long-term accommodations.

I have lived in a Housing First hotel for people experiencing homelessness for two years. I have been honest with readers from day one that there is a drug problem in the building. I have become frustrated with the situation. I considered writing a column a few weeks back entitled, “Why Housing First is a Failure.”

Housing First is a failure because treatment usually never comes. There is no "Treatment Second" after "Housing First." Actually, quality mental health care has been my "second" at Fusion Studios. But there does not appear to be much of an effort here to steer residents toward sobriety. I have expressed these opinions to staff.

Sober supports being considered at Fusion

Now, Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, which manages Fusion, may implement some sort of sobriety support here. My case manager asked if I would attend such meetings. I said I would. It helps to know other people who are trying to get or stay sober.

The Coalition currently operates a sober environment at a housing complex in Fort Lyon. But beyond that, the Coalition’s properties operate under a Housing First philosophy. The philosophy is, if you put someone in housing first, problems like addiction will be easier to tackle.

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This is where the Colorado Sun article comes back in. The author writes, “A study done in San Francisco in 2018 found that in two years, 37 of the 199 homeless who were ‘housed’ died. In 2021, Harvard medical experts published the results of a 14-year study on chronic homeless placed in permanent housing in Boston. The study found that 86% of homeless suffered from ‘trimorbidity’ – a combination of medical illness, mental illness, and substance abuse. The study further found that after 10 years, only 12% of the homeless remained housed, and during the study period, 45% of the homeless died.”

That paragraph stuck with me because there have been several overdose deaths in my building. I could not obtain an exact number, but I’d guess at least a dozen people have died of drugs or alcohol here in the past two years. There are 126 units where I live.

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Dirty drugs can kill

Someone in my building recently said they obtained meth with blue specks in it. The blue specks could be traces of dangerous opioids known as “blues.” People don't always know what they’re getting. Cross-contamination of substances happens, which makes drug use a crap-shoot. A Coalition employee who works in my building told me the drugs here are “all cut up” and very dangerous.

I quit drinking alcohol after 30 years. I quit smoking, too. I was sober aside from medical weed when I became homeless. My sobriety actually impacted my homelessness inasmuch as I disconnected from all of my friends and safety nets when I stopped drinking.

Because I ended up in in the state mental hospital, I had more than a year of sustained sobriety when I arrived at Fusion Studios.

Still no sobriety requirement

I asked Coalition spokesperson Cathy Alderman if efforts are under way to help people living at their properties get or stay sober. “There are some ongoing conversations about whether we should offer some support groups at more of our properties and Fusion is under consideration for that,” she responded. “It wouldn’t be a ‘program’ or requirement of living there but sometimes we find that if we offer the space, staff, support, etc., that people will engage.”

I asked Alderman, too, whether Narcan is available at its properties for when people overdose. “We don’t necessarily keep it at the front desk, but we encourage and make it available to trained staff including case managers, security staff, etc. so it is very likely that staff on site might have it on them.”

Addiction often comes after homelessness

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Where I don’t agree with the Colorado Sun opinion writer is where he alleges all homeless people ended up in their situation after losing their jobs, friends, and family to drugs. That was not the case with me. I began to experience severe mental illness in 2018 including hearing voices. I did not find compassion in my hometown for my embarrassing disability, only judgment.

I moved to Denver from Illinois on a whim. I had enough money to sustain me for a few months.The only substance I used was marijuana.

That changed after I had been homeless for a few months. At that time, I did start using meth when it was offered to me. It helped me keep moving and stay awake, as falling asleep can be very unsafe on the streets.

My point is that drug use often comes after homelessness, not before it. Nobody chooses the life of a “junkie.” I do believe properties that serve people experiencing homelessness should offer as much recovery support as possible.

A cannabis-positive model

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Any sort of on-site recovery support shouldn't discriminate against medical cannabis patients, especially since marijuana is legal in Colorado. I have my medical card and consider cannabis medicine. My psychiatrist suggested I obtain the card and even drove me to the marijuana doctor to get it.

There could be a successful model for recovery in homeless housing that’s somewhere between “Treatment First” and “Housing First.” You want to create an environment where sobriety is celebrated, not the opposite.

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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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