Colorado takes a tentative step toward meeting the crisis of homelessness

Colorado Sun

A significant factor in homelessness is mental illness and substance misuse, and it’s difficult to make progress toward long-term solutions without addressing them.

Diane Carman

3:04 AM MDT on Jun 19, 2022

Whenever I tell people that we recently moved from our sleepy East Denver neighborhood to a high-rise downtown, almost to a person the response is the same.

What about the homeless? Can you go outside? Aren’t you scared?

For the umpteenth time, yes, some unhoused people nap outside in my new ’hood. I walk most everywhere, usually by myself. And, no, I’m not scared (except when an obnoxious teenager on a scooter whizzes past me on the sidewalk at 15 mph, but that’s a subject for another column).

This is not to say I underestimate the problem of homelessness. It’s real; it’s intractable; and it’s rampant across the country, especially in cities, like Denver, where real estate values have soared and funding for social services hasn’t.

Anyone who expects to run for mayor of Denver in 2023 better have a plan for addressing the problem — one that goes beyond simply moving desperate people from camp to camp.  And any plan must start with a basic understanding of the issue so that candidates don’t once again just pander to the NIMBY crowd and let the problems get worse.

It also must recognize the serious work already being done.

“It’s not a singular issue,” said Lorez Meinhold, executive director of the Caring for Denver Foundation, which works with agencies to address homelessness, among other issues. “It’s very complex.”

Homelessness is the product of decades of bad public policy going back to the Reagan administration — tax incentives to encourage upscale development, the defunding of psychiatric hospitals, the slashing of federal support for low-income housing, tax limitation measures that bled away support for mental health programs, the aggressive criminalization of drug misuse by addicts, tax cuts for the rich that fueled unprecedented income inequality and on and on.

A significant factor in homelessness is mental illness and substance misuse, however, and without attention to those problems, it’s difficult to make progress toward long-term solutions.

Here’s where the Caring for Denver Foundation comes in. 

It was established when taxpayers voted to create a sales tax of .25% (25 cents on every $100 spent) in the city to fund programs to address mental health needs and substance misuse. It began in 2019 and so far has distributed $56.9 million in grants to 163 organizations.

The grants pay for peer counselors — people who often have had first-hand experience with mental illness, substance misuse or homelessness — to work with clients and build trusting relationships that ultimately can lead people to services and get them the help they need to get off the streets for real.

They fund clinical social workers to assist people who come to the public libraries for shelter and mental health workers who ride along with law enforcement personnel who are dispatched to deal with people in crisis.

By the way, when mental health workers ride along with cops, 90% of cases are diverted from law enforcement and into service programs, Meinhold said.

The grants support organizations to help marginalized communities and to meet the needs of people coming out of incarceration and foster care and keep them from becoming homeless. 

They help build capacity for organizations providing care to unhoused people and provide funds for hazard pay and self-care for staff members who deliver services to people experiencing homelessness.

That’s just in the City of Denver.

At the same time, last month the governor signed two bills to spend $95 million to build transitional housing that would also provide behavioral health services, job training and other programs to help people experiencing homelessness achieve stability. The project is funded with money remaining from the federal American Rescue Plan Act, and the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless calls it “the largest investment the state of Colorado has ever made in homelessness resolution and prevention.”

Given the severe impacts the COVID-19 pandemic has had on mental health and economic stability in Colorado, it seems an excellent way to invest the COVID relief money.

That said, none of it will be easy. 

“There will be missteps,” Meinhold said. “The problems that lead to people being unhoused are lifelong. It’s never a one-and-done kind of situation.”

But leaders too often underestimate the public’s awareness of the community’s mental health crisis and its support for public investment in care.

“When I was gathering signatures to get Caring for Denver on the ballot, it was amazing,” Meinhold said. “The campaign was all storytelling.”

One after another, people would hear about the ballot measure, and it obviously struck a chord with them.

“So many people circled back to share a story about a family member or someone in their community who couldn’t find services,” she said. “They all said we needed to do something.”

And it was not just because it upset them to see somebody living in a cardboard lean-to under a bridge.

It’s because they know somebody. 

Like an old friend of mine who developed an addiction, lost his job and move to the streets in Portland. He never referred to himself as homeless. He said he was just “camping.”

Or the sister of my friend who was schizophrenic and ran away from home as a teenager, living the rest of her life on the streets.

Or — fill in the blank.

“Everybody is impacted by this,” Meinhold said. “Everybody.”

So, it’s not just in my new neighborhood, though clearly the problem is more in-your-face downtown. 

The conditions that lead to homelessness are everywhere — right there in your own back yard.

Diane Carman is a Denver communications consultant.

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