Denver, CO

Opinion: ‘Golden tickets’ for the homeless really aren't

David Heitz
Photo byMaria Ziegler/Unsplash

Some case workers for people experiencing homelessness refer to housing vouchers as “golden tickets.”

But when I received one of these vouchers a little more than a year ago I did not even use it. Why? I was worried that nobody would rent to me.

When I moved to Denver in 2018, I initially rented an apartment in Glendale. I didn’t know anything about Glendale or I never would have moved there.

Unfortunately, I was suffering from severe mental illness when I sold my home in Illinois and moved to Denver on a whim. Due to my unusual behavior, paranoia, and I think because I am gay, I was brutally harassed by tenants and management in my building. One day I came home to several envelopes taped to my door. The apartment manager walked past and referenced a court date. I could hardly believe what was happening.

I became very frightened of the manager and the other residents. I immediately moved out of the apartment, sold my belongings which I had just purchased, and began staying in luxury hotels. Why luxury hotels? Because I was out of my mind. I blew through my inheritance in no time.

I never returned to that apartment in Glendale, but I suspect I ended up being evicted. This is hardly believable given the brutal harassment I encountered at the apartment complex.

Numbers tell the story of vouchers

Now, I feel vindicated for giving up my “golden ticket.” A new survey released Wednesday shows that the housing voucher program in Denver is an abysmal failure.

The survey, conducted by Housekeys Action Network Denver, or HAND, and Western Regional Advocacy Program, or WRAP, showed:

· “The rate of success for finding housing using a voucher has been unacceptably low,” according to the survey.

· In Denver, over the last 10 years, there was an increase of 1,429 vouchers issued.

· “In 2021, five months after receiving vouchers from the Denver Housing Authority (over one month beyond the current 120-day expiration), only 77 people out of 1,000 vouchers got housing. This represents an 8 percent chance of finding housing using a voucher.

Different vouchers carry different requirements.

Landlords reluctant to rent to homeless

Thanks to brutally hateful narratives about people experiencing homelessness, landlords have demonstrated great reluctance in renting to people with housing vouchers. Even though rent is guaranteed at least in part with a voucher, landlords worry formerly homeless people will destroy a space.

The survey by HAND shines a light on these and other discriminatory practices that often leave homeless people stuck in the rut of being unhoused. Yet homeless people never are asked what they need. “Housing development and policies are not, and never have been, created under the direction of poor and houseless people,” according to the survey. “Both locally and nationally, decisions are being made about how houseless people can get housing, the kind of housing ‘they’ need, and all other policies and budget allocations for low-income housing without the direction of those needing that housing.”

In theory, the housing voucher program should be golden. It integrates formerly unhoused people into communities scattered all over the Front Range as opposed to housing them all in one place, ghetto-style. At least with permanent supportive housing, you know what to expect. You won’t be turned away for an eviction, for example.

Voucher program leaves some high and dry

The survey asked if respondents knew what a housing voucher is and how they work. Only 54.1 percent said yes. Of those who said yes, written answers ranged from, “I would love to have one” to “they gave me one, I didn’t use it.”

Out of 807 respondents, 44.5 percent said they had been given a voucher but didn’t use it. “We see a slight increase in connection to vouchers for people with disabilities, likely due to some federal vouchers being specially set aside for this population,” according to the survey.

The housing vouchers are worthless for undocumented immigrants. “One of the criteria to be eligible for a housing voucher is being an American citizen with a Social Security number. Much of the Hispanic/Latinx houseless community is undocumented, and thus are left at a huge disadvantage when it comes to securing safe, long-term housing,” according to the survey. “All our questions about vouchers were irrelevant to this community. This is at the same time our nation touts housing vouchers as the main path to end houselessness.”

But even for homeless Americans, vouchers don’t always guarantee housing. Said one participant at a HAND community event: “I’ve had a voucher for months, and keep in mind, the voucher took me six months of banging my head against a wall for three or four days a week. Just dead end, after dead end, after dead end. I have a housing voucher and I’m still unhoused. What’s up with that?”

For that person and so many others, the vouchers are hardly a golden ticket.

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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. You can email me news releases and story ideas at

Denver, CO

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