By Mike McKibbin/NewsBreak Denver
[DOUGLAS COUNTY, CO] As the numbers of people experiencing homelessness increase in Douglas County, a new program at the sheriff’s department will try to help released jail inmates reintegrate into the community and educate residents on ways to help.
The county commissioners on Tuesday directed about $641,000, in federal American Rescue Plan Act money the county received during the COVID-19 pandemic be used to initially fund the program. State funds and other sources including grants will be sought in future years to keep the program active.
A January 2022 homeless survey found a 72% increase in the county homeless population over the previous year and identified the impact homeless individuals had to the county jail, concerns over safety at area shelters and the need for supportive services.
The sheriff’s department, Castle Rock, Lone Tree and Parker police departments respond to about 110 calls a month regarding people experiencing homelessness.
The new program will include a three-member homeless resource team, a reintegration deputy and a public awareness campaign.
A team of “navigators,” specially trained to respond to calls and help homeless individuals, will work with local law enforcement departments.
Released inmates to get help
Sheriff’s Lt. Jenny McMillan, an administrative lieutenant for detentions, said the jail population had changed “dramatically in the last several years.”
Currently, the jail holds a record number of inmates, she added. Many inmates deal with issues like substance abuse, mental health and traumatic brain injuries, McMillan stated.
“We wanted to find a way to get them the resources they need when they’re released so they don’t become part of our homeless population,” McMillan said.
Between 25-40 inmates are released from the jail each month, McMillan noted.
Nicole Beckett works with inmate reintegration at the county jail. She told the commissioners a fair amount of prisoners released from the jail do not live in the county and have no way to leave the county.
The reintegration effort will include information on where newly released inmates can go for help, a backpack and transportation to Regional Transportation District bus and light rail stations, along with bus and rail tickets, McMillan explained.
Inmates will also get help obtaining prescription medications from pharmacies and transportation to services such as mental health appointments.
Signs to direct people how to help
A public awareness campaign will encourage residents to contact agencies that help the homeless and contribute to their efforts. The Douglas County Foundation would be asked to establish a fund for homeless services.
Signs will be posted at on- and off-ramps on Interstate 25 and C-470 throughout the county, along with heavily traveled intersections.
Commissioner Abe Laydon said “conflicted citizens want to do the right thing when they see someone who might be homeless but they don’t know what that might be.”
“If we can help direct them with an active campaign like this, pointing them to the community foundation, a website or phone number, we’d be helping them out,” he continued.
Commissioner George Teal said he was critical of such programs in years past but had changed his views.
“Too often when we look at our response to the homeless, it’s ‘Call a cop’,” he stated. “That’s not appropriate and this will do a great job of introducing an idea and urging an action that will respond with experts, not just push this off on the criminal justice community.”
Laydon called the county’s mental health initiative a “runaway success,” and envisioned “phenomenal outcomes, diversions from the jail to hospitals that should be huge savings to the county” with the county’s homeless initiative.
“If we offer practical resources and partner with law enforcement, we’re gonna change lives,” Laydon added.