Experts working with individuals experiencing homelessness agree that lack of affordable housing and services, stigma and a “not in my backyard” attitude are some of the greatest challenges in …
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Experts working with individuals experiencing homelessness agree that lack of affordable housing and services, stigma and a “not in my backyard” attitude are some of the greatest challenges in combating homelessness.
“I think there’s largely a misunderstanding of the complex issue with homelessness,” said Scott Shields, CEO of Family Tree, a nonprofit that works with people affected by child abuse, domestic violence, and homelessness. “I cannot think of one new initiative that we did not receive significant community pushback. I think that one of the most significant barriers we have is a general misunderstanding of why people are experiencing homelessness in our community.”
The many layers and complexities of homelessness was the topic of discussion at the Community Impact Breakfast held March 15 by the Arvada Chamber of Commerce.
The topic is one that has been coming to light more and more of the past couple years as the visible homeless population in Arvada and Jefferson County continues to grow.
“Hidden homelessness is becoming less hidden,” said Dr. Mark Johnson, executive director of Jefferson County Public Health. "People move around and they move to areas where they feel safer and feel there are more benefits. I think we’re seeing people move out of Denver and into Jefferson County mainly because they feel safer out here and it’s becoming something that is much more visible than it has been in the past.”
The 2018 Point in Time Count recorded 577 individuals in Jefferson County experiencing literal homelessness — staying in a shelter, transitional housing or sleeping unsheltered outside. Of that, 14 percent were newly homeless and 51 percent were families.
“We’re seeing families experiencing homelessness due to the cost-of-living in Jefferson County,” said Jessica Hansen, with Jefferson County Human Services. “We do not have access to affordable housing in our community. Currently in Jeffco, our vacancy rate is under 3 percent, which goes to show the challenges for individuals finding a place to be.”
Under the McKinney-Vento definition of homelessness, which includes students who are displaced and living in unstable environments, over 3,000 students in Jeffco Public Schools are experiencing homelessness.
“We are not seeing this issues go away,” Hansen said. “We are seeing families in Jeffco schools are living doubled-up with relatives and friends through economic hardship. Which makes sense, because we don’t have other options. We are so limited on the shelter space in our community.”
Families who are living in their car or couch-surfing are often referred to as the invisible homeless population.
“A lot of the times we have families that try to stay away from the community because they are working really hard to get their children in a healthy environment and it’s embarrassing to them,” said Officer Sara Horan, homeless liaison with the Arvada Police Department. “They don’t want to see their co-workers, or their children’s friends to see them on the street.”
Horan said it’s important to understand that population exists in Jefferson County.
But the visible homeless is where much of community conversation revolves around.
That’s the population, Horan says the police department gets complaints about — the ones seen in Olde Town, at 52nd and Wadsworth or 80th and Wadsworth.
“We get numerous complaints thinking this is a police issue and the police need to handle it and that’s not the case,” Horan said. “Homelessness is a societal issue.”
The stigma around the homeless population is something Horan said is barrier she sees.
“There are select individuals that have ruined the image of homelessness for some good people,” Horan said. “I’ve contacted some amazing individuals that are experiencing homelessness that are doing everything they can to get off the street, but then I’ve also contacted those that are abusing narcotics, leaving needles behind and causing disturbances. Because of those select few, they’ve ruined that image for everyone experiencing homelessness and that’s a huge barrier for the police department.”
Horan said that the police department handles people committing criminal offenses such as disturbances, open containers, open use of narcotics, but they don’t want to target homeless for non criminal offenses.
“Don’t assume that if you see someone standing on the street you need to contact the police department,” Horan said. “Panhandling is not against the law. Being homeless is not against the law.”
Access to affordable housing and livable wage jobs were both barriers and solutions talked about by the panel.
“Employment is the way out of homelessness,” Hansen said. “Income is the way to supporting families out of homelessness. But if the only job they have access to are minimum wage, they’re looking at needing to work two, three, four jobs in order to pay their rent. And so for me, it feels like we’re putting people in an impossible position.”
Hansen asked the business community in attendance to be open to partnerships that allow career paths to be opened for individuals who are experiencing homelessness, giving them a second chance to thrive and more forward.
David Cook, municipal judge for the city of Arvada, said one challenge he sees with employment in the court system is loss of identification. Many people experiencing homelessness that come through his court say they can’t get a job because they don’t have an ID.
“On the streets, your stuff gets stolen,” Cook said. “Homeless people are without sleep — these people go for days sometimes without sleep. Think about the last time you pulled an all nighter. How would you like to sit down and fill out a job application after that? Well, try doing it for three days and let me know how that application goes.”
Cook said he hopes to work on a system where individuals can be vouched for that allows able-bodies people to get into work.
In June, the courts also plan to roll out a new docket system that makes service providers available to those experiencing homelessness on their court date.
On the housing front, Hansen said even for individuals who are eligible for affordable housing and receive a housing voucher, because of the low vacancy rate and stock of affordable housing, they often cannot find a place to utilize the voucher.
The city of Arvada is looking for ways to correct that.
Arvada City Manager Mark Deven said the old Ridge Home site represents a prefect opportunity for affordable housing. He said there has been discussion around allowing someone to develop the site for affordable housing with services that would provide support for families that are facing the challenges.
But, the site is actually in Wheat Ridge, not Arvada and it would need about $3 million in environmental remediation.
Another challenge, Deven said, is that it is adjacent to residential properties, which could bring opposition from neighbors.
“I would ask you all to say that homelessness in our community matters,” Shields said. “I would ask you all to be part of a movement of yes in my backyard, instead of not in my backyard.”
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