Arvada’s City Council rang in the new year by addressing one of the most pressing concerns for the community: homelessness.
At a Jan. 9 study session, Arvada’s city team resolved to take a more supervisory role in terms of homeless service coordination, but one of the city’s key would-be partners — Mission Arvada, a homeless service ministry that operates out of The Rising Church in Olde Town — says the city hasn’t always been a willing collaborator.
The discussion was spurred in part because of an incident that occurred on Christmas Day at School House Kitchen and Libations; one of the many Olde Town establishments owned by Scott Spears.
In an email to city council, city team members and other community stakeholders, Spears reported that a homeless man broke into Schoolhouse and vandalized the restaurant and its alcohol stock. Spears said a bar manager at Schoolhouse found the man on Christmas morning, at which point Arvada Police responded.
The man was eventually placed in jail, according to Spears, and Spears himself had to leave his family to take care of the situation.
“I’m sick of this,” Spears said in the email. “Do something. Shut down the church that is bringing all of these people down here. We all know that is the main problem. If any other business was causing these types of problems, they would be shut down immediately.
“Not only has my family and I invested millions of dollars into Olde Town, but I have given my heart and soul to our wonderful town,” Spears continued. “And now it is being destroyed. Get this homeless situation under control. You are our leaders and you are letting us down. Do something. Now.”
In Arvada Mayor Marc Williams' response to Spears’ email, the mayor seemed to support the idea of having the Rising moved from the historic district.
“As you know, there are several of us who want to shut down the Rising in Olde Town,” Williams said. “I get emails from their supporters, but their support is misplaced. I’m glad this guy got arrested. Enough is enough.”
Other stakeholders seemed to agree. Steven Howards, an Olde Town building owner, echoed Spears’ and Williams’ sentiments.
“I too own a significant amount of property in Olde Town and am very frustrated,” Howards said. “The Rising Church is a crummy neighbor that lacks compassion for the Olde Town community, which is a sad, sad commentary.”
At the Jan. 9 study session, city team members went over data regarding homelessness. The estimates contained in that data are approximate and are culled from a variety of sources.
The city estimates that in Arvada, 1,126 people received day sheltering over a one-year period. Of those individuals, the city estimates that 200 are unhoused (more of a temporary condition), 64 are chronically homeless, 40 are veterans and 128 are disabled.
The city reports that there are 493 people experiencing homelessness in Jefferson County; 142 people in emergency shelter, 164 people unsheltered, 35 people in transitional housing, 133 families, 341 adults and 19 youth.
The Arvada Police Department estimates that between 125 and 175 individuals are homeless in Arvada.
Representatives from Mission Arvada — which, unlike the City of Arvada, participates in the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative, which compiles data on unhoused people to appropriately allocate housing vouchers from the Department of Housing and Urban Development — said they have served 1,090 unique individuals over the past year.
Additionally, Mission Arvada has placed 141 people into permanent housing in the last two years; 97% of which, they say, have stayed in that housing.
Deputy City Manager Don Wick said that in 2017, the city had 1,100 calls related to service for homeless people. In the last two years, Wick said, that number increased to 3,800 calls for service.
Arvada Police Chief Ed Brady said that 1,100 arrests and tickets have been issued to homeless individuals within the last year. Brady estimated that in 2020, the total cost for APD’s response to homeless calls — including the salaries of CORE team officers, co-responders and funding for camp cleanups — exceeded $1 million.
“I don’t see that as a source of pride,” Brady said. “It just shows that there’s a demand for it… this is just the CORE (APD’s Community, Outreach, Resource and Enforcement team) Officers. So, this doesn’t even account for our patrol officers who have to deal with issues when CORE’s not there.”
At the council study session, Wick asserted his belief that no matter what the city or relevant stakeholders do, homelessness will always exist in Arvada. He asserted that, according to the city’s research, only about one-third of homeless people wish to better their situation.
“There’s going to be a level of homelessness that exists in our community, regardless of what steps or actions we take,” Wick said. “Through the course of our research that we did over the past few months, we have determined that it's likely that we would be in the 30 to 40% range of individuals that we would have success in reaching and getting them into services or housing or a combination of both.”
However, Karen Cowling — Director of Mission Arvada — says the City of Arvada’s research is incorrect because it lacks a fundamental component of providing care for unhoused people: trust.
“Unbeknownst to them, 99% of the people we have gained trust of in here have sought help,” Cowling said. “Even if it appears that they don’t. Because maybe they’re so angry and belligerent about everything that’s happened to them and how the system has failed them. There seems to be no hope for them.
“They still want help, even though they’re afraid or they’re marginalized,” Cowling continued. “They still want help. Your perception that they don’t want help — that’s yours. You don’t know them. The relationship is not there. They don’t trust you enough to tell you how afraid they are, how scared they are to trust anyone. That is a complete false perception.”
The Rising’s Pastor, Stephen Byers — who helps lead Mission Arvada along with Cowling — said the city’s study session lacked consideration of the relationship needed to gain the trust of someone who’s been living at the margins of society.
Forty percent of people Mission Arvada provides services to have spent time in foster care, Byers said, which he claimed adds to the importance of relationship building during rehabilitation.
“One of the things I think is missing in this whole discussion is the importance of relationship,” Byers said. “And how relationship builds for someone who’s often lived a life with a lot of trauma, relationship is important to help them move to the next level.”
Moving beyond one’s circumstances
Byers said that over the past two years, Mission Arvada has helped 141 people get into permanent housing. He claims 97% of them have stayed.
The nonprofit provides two hot meals a day, showers, a clothing bank, severe weather items and laundry services. Additionally, partners including Senior Smiles Dental, Christian Legal Society, Jefferson Center for Mental Health, DMV To Go and others partner with Mission Arvada to provide their services in-house at The Rising’s Olde Town church building.
In exchange, unhoused people who utilize Mission Arvada’s services must attend an orientation, where they are appraised of a strict 25-rule code of conduct — which governs acceptable actions both at Mission Arvada’s property and in the broader Arvada/Olde Town community — they must follow to remain eligible for services.
“We have every service in place that will help people move beyond their circumstances, and the services are in-house,” Cowling said. “We are the only entity like that in Jefferson County that offers emergency services and in-house navigation services for getting people into permanent housing.”
In 2020, Jefferson County stated its desire to build two homeless navigation centers in the area to provide wraparound services for unhoused people. Last year, the City of Arvada spent $2.75 million for a property located at 51st Avenue and Marshall Street in order to submit a bid for one of the navigation centers.
Arvada’s Director of Communication and Engagement Rachael Kuroiwa said that the city has closed on the property and will now begin working with Jeffco and the surrounding municipalities to begin planning a navigation center.
However, Kuroiwa added that while the city considers the site to be “viable,” Arvada does not have final site confirmation from the county yet, meaning that the placement of the navigation center is still up in the air. She added that the project is still years away from completion.
“This is likely to be a long-term project that will take several years to complete,” Kuroiwa said. “As this project develops, there will be more public information available as the planning and design process moves forward… We believe it is a viable site for a regional navigation center. Final site confirmation is part of the regional coordination work that is ahead of us.”
Kuroiwa added that the city is not considering having any services on the site until a navigation center is completed.
In Wick’s presentation, he credited “economic reasons,” “relationship issues,” “post-traumatic stress related issues, physical or behavioral health, mental health issues, addiction,” as some of the reasons why people experience homelessness.
Wick also stated that “Some make a lifestyle choice” to be homeless, an assertion both Cowling and Byers bristled at, but Williams echoed.
“People don’t choose to be homeless and live on the streets and eat out of trash cans,” Cowling said. “You know what I mean? That (comment) really bothered me.”
Williams in particular doubled down on Wick’s claim, stating that if the city does not limit the “impact” homeless people have on Arvada residents, the city will “lose our Olde Town.”
“Where I’m most concerned right now, from an immediate perspective, are the chronic homeless who want to remain homeless,” Williams said. “What do we do with them? And how do we make them have a much smaller impact on our citizens?"
Wick called Olde Town an “attractive place for the homeless to be able to come and seek shelter and food” due to a “triangle of services” in the historic district made up of Mission Arvada, the Jefferson County Public Library branch directly across the street and the nearby G-Line RTD stop.
To his point, Wick showed a heat map with homeless population clusters around Arvada, which seemed to suggest a trend of unhoused people gathering near G-Line stops, most frequently in Olde Town. He posited that after Mission Arvada closes at 1 p.m. each day, unhoused people head to the library across the street.
“We’re pretty sure this has some negative economic impact, especially around Olde Town,” Wick said. “It’s a little bit challenging to quantify exactly what that means, but if you talk to the business community, specifically, they'll share that sentiment."
Cowling called Olde Town “a gem of the city” and said Mission Arvada would be willing to move its services to another location — including the property at 51stt and Marshall — if the city was able to provide assistance. The Rising’s congregation has been located at the church’s Olde Town location since the 1960s.
“To be very blunt, they don’t want the homeless in Olde Town,” Cowling said. “This is a gem to the city, and they don’t want them here. We have told them that we would operate outside of Olde Town. But we are a nonprofit. We don’t have the funding to buy a building and make it equipped to do all of the things that we’re doing.”
Wick says a move must come sooner, rather than later.
“We need to identify an appropriate location outside of Olde Town to provide homeless services,” Wick said. “I think we could have a great advantage if we can find an appropriate place where services can be provided that will serve people and do well. But Olde Town is not that location.”
Byers says moving Mission Arvada won’t solve all of Olde Town’s problems.
“The other fallacy is that if we left, if we weren’t in Olde Town, there would be no homeless in Olde Town,” Byers said. “They’ve created an urban environment. There are other attractions here; there’s a library, a light rail station, a transit hub, there’s greenspace all around here.
“Why are homeless people in Arvada?” Byers continued. “It’s safer than Denver, as well as many of them grew up around here. This is their home; this is their safe place.”
Arvada Municipal Judge Kathryn Kurtz shared the latest results from the court’s One Small Step Program (OSS), which is designed specifically to help defendants who are experiencing homelessness. The defendants work with city prosecutors, probation officers and homeless navigators in order to be connected with resources, treatment and housing during their trial.
Kurtz said that 733 OSS cases were filed in 2022, compared to about 4,700 municipal court cases overall. However, of the 1,030 criminal violation cases filed in 2022, 71% were OSS cases.
To date, three defendants have successfully completed OSS. Three OSS defendants are currently in a treatment program, and 15 OSS defendants have received housing.
“We have a couple more defendants who have successfully completed the program,” Kurtz said. “And what that looks like for me is that they're not picking up new law violations. They are relatively sober, they are in housing, and they're on either disability that can help sustain them and pay for their housing or that they're working so that they can support themselves.”
Nevertheless, Kurtz said that the biggest struggle folks in the program have is completing treatment. Kurtz requires OSS defendants who are struggling with substance abuse to attend Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings, but those programs don’t work for everyone, she said.
“I told (one defendant), ‘You go to treatment or you go to jail,’ because he had so many criminal violations that he was really escalating that behavior,” Kurtz said. “And he was really given every single access to resources and was unwilling to engage at all, in any respect. And so that was kind of the end of the line for him.
“He went to treatment for a day and then bombed out and so he did end up spending 190 days in jail,” Kurtz continued.
Brady said that a shortage of mental health resources keeps people cycling through the legal system without actually getting better.
“If there’s one thing I would ask you to take away from my portion, it is that there are not enough mental health resources for those people that are found guilty of crimes or are put on M1 holds,” Brady said.
The city has committed to taking a coordinating role in providing homeless services. Wick asserted that taking a leadership role in connecting service providers to those in need would be more beneficial than Arvada actually providing services itself.
“You've heard from our various experts here about how they're trying to get people into the resources,” Wick said. “But it's really difficult because we lack a coordinated system in order to get there.
“My recommendation is that we need to advocate for a strong governance system,” Wick continued, “like you see at the Tri Cities, what you see in Adams County and others, not to deliver the services not to be the service provider, but rather that we build the governance structure with policy aims that are clear across the county and provide consistency for what we can do, that we helped lead the effort to develop the regional plan, execute that plan, manage and coordinate that be the catalyst for change.”
Wick also called on city council to lobby the state legislature for increased funding to accomplish this.
An exasperated Williams agreed with Wick’s recommendation but maintained that some people "don't want to be helped."
“Let’s certainly work on programs and how we can better coordinate and how it can work regionally on helping those who want to be helped,” Williams said. “But for those that don’t want to be helped, you know, do we just tell from, here’s a place you can go, and you can start your own little society and leave us alone? Or what?”
Byers says that if the city wants to partner with service providers, it will have to better its relationships with them — something he hasn’t seen yet.
“We need more coordination from the city, the city can coordinate and collaborate, but we need collaboration,” Byers said. “You have us, Community Table, Grace Church, the library; it would be nice if someone could just get everyone together and we’re working on who’s doing what. Possibly talk about specific clients and what’s the best avenue to help them.
“It’s a holistic thing; a city cannot (provide services),” Byers continued. “Governments are not relational.”
“That’s why there’s nonprofits,” Cowling said. “We all need to work together to get people into housing.”
Despite the disorganization, lack of resources and myriad challenges facing homeless people in Arvada, there are some — though not many — success stories.
“We have about 15 dependents who have received housing, and those who have received housing are doing really well,” Kurtz said. “It’s really fun to see that while they’re not living that white picket fence life, necessarily, they’re in a much better place than they were previously, especially during the winter months.
“I think they feel really good about where they are,” Kurtz continued. “And they’re willing to meaningfully engage and work towards betterment.”