The inability to afford or keep up with high housing costs is among the biggest factors driving homelessness in Englewood, Sheridan and Littleton, which disproportionately affects people of color, according to new studies.
Leaders in Englewood, Sheridan and Littleton are exploring the most comprehensive study yet on homelessness in the three cities, part of an ongoing effort to collaborate on how to address the complex issue.
The Tri-Cities Homelessness Policy group, a coalition of officials from the three cities as well as representatives from local nonprofits and outreach agencies, formed in 2018 as part of efforts to increase collaboration to address the needs of residents without homes.
At a Jan. 28 meeting, the group received briefings on two studies into the causes and challenges of homelessness, one of which was catered specifically to the three cities.
The first, conducted by the Center for Housing and Homelessness Research at the University of Denver, was split into two parts: a study of families experiencing homelessness, and another studying chronic homelessness, largely among individuals. The study did not attempt to count the numbers of people experiencing homelessness, said Daniel Brisson, who leads the center, but instead focused on qualitative data about participants’ lives.
The study, which began in 2019, was partly affected by the eruption of COVID-19 early last year. The study sought to understand what caused families or individuals to lose their homes, what prevented them from exiting homelessness, and understanding what services exist or are lacking in the Tri-Cities area.
The largest causes of homelessness and barriers to finding new housing for families are all financial, according to the study.
Among causes of homelessness among 49 individuals surveyed:
• 61% said they were unable to pay rent.
• 57% reported a change in employment.
• 47% reported losing a job.
• 45% cited housing cost increases.
• 45% cited other unaffordable expenses.
Other reasons cited included relationship issues, mental health issues, domestic violence, low or no credit scores or illness.
Among the barriers to reentering housing for families:
• 59% cited the increase in housing costs.
• 55% reported having too low of a credit score to qualify for rentals.
• 53% reported being unable to reliably pay rent.
• 49% reported a change in employment.
• 41% reported losing a job.
Other reasons cited were similar to the causes: illness, mental health issues, domestic violence or the black mark of eviction on their records.
Most homeless families live doubled up in other people’s homes, the study found. Other locations in order of frequency were hotels and motels, emergency shelters and cars, followed by living on the streets or in tents.
Among individuals experiencing chronic homelessness, living on the streets was far more common. Of 121 individuals surveyed, 100 reported living on the streets at some point over the last two years, with 41 saying they spent the prior night on the street.
Similar to families experiencing homelessness, primary causes and barriers for individuals experincing chronic homelessness were largely financial, including job loss, high housing costs, employment changes, inability to keep up with climbing rents or inability to recover after an eviction.
A significant finding of the study is that one individual can have many interconnected issues that all add up to a difficult and intractable situation.
For instance, one individual surveyed in the study reported all of the following: losing a job after arguing with coworkers, an inability to keep other jobs due to addiction-related issues, disability after a car crash that made physically demanding jobs impossible, years-long waitlists for subsidized public housing, and depression and paranoia problems that exacerbated every other issue.
Despite the statistics, it’s important to understand that every person experiencing homelessness is different and on their own journey, Brisson said.
“If you’ve met one person who’s experienced homelessness, you’ve met one person who’s experienced homelessness,” Brisson told the group.
A second study, conducted by the Metro Denver Homelessness Initiative (MDHI), studied homelessness across the Denver metro area more broadly.
The study found that between July 1, 2019 and June 30, 2020, more than 31,000 people accessed services related to homelessness, and the number of unhoused people in the Denver metro area climbed by 15% between 2018 and 2020.
Another key finding: racial inequity was high in all data sets in the study, with people of color — and particularly people who are Black or Indigenous — largely overrepresented compared to their share of the general population.
The study came to similar conclusions as the DU study: High housing costs are a tremendous driver of homelessness.
The effects of rising housing costs are exacerbated by the impacts of trauma and stress, the study found, with domestic violence, mental health issues and chronic health conditions all contributing to families and individuals becoming unable to meet income needs.
The MDHI study concluded that the Tri-Cities area lacks a single coordinating entity for housing services, saying there are multiple agencies in the region that could collaborate further and share more data or clientele.
The study also made a variety of recommendations for the Tri-Cities Homelessness Policy Group:
• Address housing affordability issues by finding or developing more affordable housing in the communities.
• Develop eviction-prevention strategies, because keeping people housed is more cost-effective than helping them recover after losing a home.
• Partner with employment programs.
• Include financial education in service offerings.
• Coordinate “wrap-around” services when assisting individuals and families by developing a more comprehensive approach to meeting mental and physical health needs, child welfare needs, domestic violence recovery support and addiction treatment.
The Tri-Cities Homelessness Policy Group plans to draft a plan for further action based on the studies, which is scheduled to be presented in May.