Opinion | Paul Olson: Innovative approaches for minimizing homelessness | SummitDaily.com

Opinion | Paul Olson: Innovative approaches for minimizing homelessness

Paul Olson

Do we have people experiencing homelessness in Summit County? With our housing shortage, high rents and many people working low-wage jobs, we cannot avoid having a significant amount of homelessness. When most of us think of homelessness we might envision people sleeping on the sidewalk in downtown Denver. These very visible homeless people can lead us to believe that most people without permanent housing sleep outside and may suffer from mental illness or substance abuse. However, this is not the norm, even in Denver.

A Denver metro area survey in January 2020 (prior to the COVID-19 pandemic) found that 25.6% of homeless people in the Denver area were unsheltered, meaning they were living in a location not meant for human habitation such as a car, an abandoned building or outside. Thus, the majority of homeless persons, 74.4%, were in a homeless shelter or in transitional housing and looking for long-term housing. About 24% of homeless individuals in Denver were members of families with children under age 18. About 12.4% were fleeing domestic violence. In Denver or Summit County, most homelessness results from poverty and a lack of affordable housing. People who are evicted or cannot find an affordable apartment will live with a friend or relative until they find other housing, but during the transition they are homeless, with no home of their own.

Our resort economy has unsteady growth and many of the jobs in construction or at ski resorts are seasonal. This increases the potential for poverty and homelessness. There are many households in Summit County with a couple or individual working full time (or more) for under $20 per hour. They are getting by, but paying 50% of their income toward housing, so every month has a tight budget. It only takes an emergency medical bill, major auto repair or job loss to leave them with insufficient money for rent and possible eviction.

The Family & Intercultural Resource Center has played an essential role in preventing evictions in our community. At least 2,248 Summit households received emergency rental assistance from the resource center during 2020. This was funded by the Colorado Department of Local Affairs to assist workers who were laid off when many businesses closed due to COVID-19. Summit County Government gave a grant of $100,000 to the resource center in 2022, with much of that funding going toward emergency rental assistance. This is a good example of our local government operating more efficiently by giving funding to a nonprofit organization that provides important public services and then government does not need to add staff.

A 2016 study by the National Alliance to End Homelessness found that a person experiencing chronic homelessness costs taxpayers an average of $35,000 per year for police and EMT time, ambulance and emergency room costs, and court and jail expense. In Denver, sometimes that amount is double. In an innovative experiment to address this issue, Denver made use of $8.6 million in funding from the Supportive Housing Social Impact Bond initiative in which eight private investors provided money for stable housing for 363 individuals plus funding for case workers and mental health and substance abuse services. About 77% of those in the program were still housed after three years, and Denver taxpayers realized an average annual savings in public services of almost $7,000 per person in the program. This savings benefited taxpayers and allowed Denver to pay back the investors with interest.

The Housing First approach to homelessness is recommended by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. It gives priority to placing people in stable housing before trying to address mental health, substance abuse or employment assistance. Housing First has been effective in many cities but is expensive making it a tough sell to taxpayers. Houston has had a 63% reduction in homelessness since 2011 using Housing First. Many in Denver dislike the no-strings-attached approach of Housing First, but I can see how having a place of one’s own would help a person stay on medication, be better able to go through rehab or be more able to hold a steady job.

Minimizing homelessness is a challenging economic and social issue because it is costly to ignore, and addressing it is also expensive and requires a carefully planned, long-term strategy. Colorado’s growing economy and wonderful quality of life have attracted so many people to the state that affordable housing is in very short supply. Even with the substantial investments made by many Front Range cities in recent years to address the housing shortage, Colorado had a 266% increase in homelessness from 2007 to 2021, the worst of any state according to an HUD report.

For better efficiency, the city of Denver tries to have nonprofits and private businesses provide the services for homeless people and then the city allocates funding for these shelters, food pantries and mental health clinics. We are fortunate that generous volunteers and donors have stepped up to help Summit County nonprofit organizations provide services to struggling renters. The Summit County Interfaith Council launched the Unsheltered in Summit program to provide safe overnight parking for those living in their vehicles. Several Summit churches and charities offer free meals and food pantries for those in need. For people with tight budgets, money saved on food is money that can go toward paying the rent. For more information, see SummitCoInterfaith.WildApricot.org.

It will be years before Summit County has sufficient affordable housing, but local government entities are making a substantial commitment toward addressing this issue which is so important for our economy and for the quality of life of our valued workers. Building new housing is a slow process, but the Lease to Locals program and limits on the number of short-term rentals are already helping to increase the supply of long-term rentals.

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