The last time the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative did a complete Point-In-Time count of the number of people experiencing homelessness in Denver on a given night was prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. At that time, 4,171 individuals identified themselves as experiencing homelessness. With a 54% increase in average shelter guests served per night in March 2021 over March 2020, it is clear that homelessness has increased during the pandemic. Other factors showing signs of economic distress have also increased: unemployment quadrupled (up from 2.7% prepandemic to 12.3% in April 2020), Medicaid enrollment was up 19% (up 263,422 people – from 1.2m in March 2020 to 1.4m members in March 2021), and applications for rent and utility assistance increased 270%.
In the City & County of Denver, we believe that everyone in our community deserves to be healthy, housed and connected. We know that when someone is housed stably, they are better able to connect to resources, find and keep a job, get and stay healthy, address behavioral and mental health issues, feel safe and secure, and live fuller lives.
Resolving homelessness requires outreach to people experiencing homelessness, especially the roughly 25% who are living without any shelter. It requires varied, temporary shelter options for people to stay in that meet their needs. It requires services and supports to provide for basic needs like food and hygiene, and other important support services like property storage, mental and behavioral health services, substance use disorder treatment, job training and placement, prisoner and re-entry services, help signing up for benefits, and more.
But most importantly, it requires housing. Access to safe, stable, affordable housing is the platform from which people can work on the factors that contribute to a housing crisis – whether those be finding a job that pays living wages, obtaining care for mental and physical conditions, addressing substance misuse, or seeking safety from abusive relationships. We must have places for people to live in order to resolve homelessness, whether it’s supportive housing with wraparound services or affordable rental units or programs that help someone with rent for a short time and support to increase income. We need to invest in the staffing and systems to connect people quickly to available housing and help them lease up, and we need to partner to help residents connect with strategies to increase their income. Like communities across the country, Denver is impacted by the national housing affordability crisis. In the face of this challenge, Denver has taken important and innovative steps to expanding housing resources, particularly for residents experiencing homelessness, including creation of the Social Impact Bond supportive housing program, and dedicated funding sources for affordable housing and homelessness resolution. These initiatives have helped hundreds of residents regain housing, and yet, it is not enough to resolve homelessness. To achieve this critical goal, we must do more, and we must work regionally (see the page 50 for more on regionalism).
We know we must also work to address the systemic racism that causes a disproportionately higher percentage of Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) to experience homelessness. More than 57% of outreach clients, 53% of those in shelters and 60% in rehousing programs are BIPOC compared to 46% of the population overall.
While our network of shelter providers serve the majority of those experiencing homelessness on a given night, we must acknowledge the myriad reasons people experiencing homelessness may not want to stay at a congregate shelter and we must work to provide options that meet people’s needs. The City has worked to address these challenges by implementing shelter improvements called for in the Three-year Shelter Strategy, including an expedited expansion of 24/7 sheltering during the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, Denver has launched innovative alternatives to congregate shelter, including more autonomy in shelter options like motel rooms and tiny homes, as well as innovations to reduce harm like Safe Outdoor Spaces. We realize those efforts are not happening fast enough or on a large enough scale to meet immediate needs.