Denver far from wiping out homelessness

6:10 PM, Feb 6, 2014   |    comments
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DENVER-With Colorado's front range in the grips of below zero temperatures, thoughts often turn to the homeless and where they will find shelter.

It's somewhat fitting that Thursday was set aside in Denver to raise awareness about the problem.

The awareness campaign is a double-edged sword. Focusing on the goal to end homelessness points up just how difficult that is.

We are in year nine of Denver's ten year plan to end homelessness, a plan launched when John Hickenlooper (now Governor of the state) was mayor.

It's safe to say we not nine tenths of the way there-- or even close.

That's not lost on Denver's current mayor, Michael Hancock, who spent Thursday working in his pajamas.

"PJ day" is the major fundraiser for Denver's Road Home, the group trying to end homelessness in the city.

"Today there are about 5,000 homeless in our community," Hancock said.

According to the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative, there were more than 11,100 homeless people in the metro area in 2013, with 4900 of them in the city of Denver.

That's 14 percent more homeless people in the City of Denver than when the project started in 2005.

That figure is the same as the rate of overall population growth for the city in that time.

We aren't going to get to zero homeless people next year.

"We may never get to zero homelessness in this city, or anywhere in this nation," Hancock said. "At the end of the day, however, we still have an obligation to do the things necessary to help those who are without proper shelter and housing."

People involved with Denver's Road Home de-emphasize the "in ten years" part of the plan to end homelessness.

"We are truly ending homelessness. It's one person, one family at a time," said Denver Human Services spokeswoman Jamie Bradley.

In fairness, there have been unforeseen complications. This project started in economic boom times, before the bubble burst.

"No one could have imagined the scale in which the recession hit this nation," Hancock said.

People lost jobs and homes in the downturn, leading to what social workers refer to as "situational homelessness."

"There's often a misperception that the homeless are only the people you might see on the streets," Bradley said. "When in fact 64 percent of the homeless population in Denver are families."

Denver's Road Home says it would have been worse, without its efforts to connect thousands of people with jobs and housing.

The more stereotypical "chronic homelessness" is a tougher problem to deal with, complicated by mental health and substance abuse issues.

Some members of this population refuse to enter shelters, not wanting to comply with the rules imposed to secure a bed.

That's one reason the group has a hard time earning sympathy from many in the public, though social workers are quick to point out that not pro-actively helping these people comes with a high cost.

"[One person] can cost upwards of $40,000 a year because they're accessing emergency room services or detox services, which tend to be the city's most expensive services," Bradley said.

Providing "wraparound" services to help these people deal with their problems can more than cut that cost in half.

The effort to end homelessness will go beyond year ten, when the economic recovery could help slow the growth of homelessness in Denver.

Stamping out homelessness altogether may very well prove to be an impossible dream.

(KUSA-TV © 2014 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)

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