Westminster City Councilor Bruce Baker took some heat after his comments regarding those experiencing homelessness at a March 21 study session meeting.
“I don’t have any problem with people sleeping in public, my problem is when they drag all their junk to my open space and the sun goes down and the rules say `everybody out unless you’re walking on the trail’ and we don’t do anything,” Baker said.
He also thinks that city staff needs to “defend parks and open space” from the homeless population and that the city has become a social service provider.
Baker criticized the amount of money the city has spent on solving homelessness.
“All we are doing is encouraging them,” he said.
Councilor Rich Seymour said he has no problem with a compassionate approach to the homeless population, however once a choice is given, then the laws should be enforced.
Mayor Nancy McNally agreed that those experiencing homelessness must follow a certain program to receive help.
To Baker’s comment, Seymour questioned where those experiencing homelessness would go?
“We can’t just put them on a train to Denver,” Seymour said.
Kate Skarbek, an analyst with Parks, Recreation and Libraries, said while everyone would love to see everyone housed, resources are limited.
“When these people go into our open space and we allow it, that’s just wrong, these are scary things they are doing to the neighbors,” Baker said.
Baker also said that those experiencing homelessness have gone through the “system” many times but don’t want to take on the same responsibilities as the general population. He doesn’t think funding homeless initiatives is a core service of the city.
“A lot of them cannot be fixed, they aren’t going to be able to reenter our society” he said.
City Councilor Obi Ezeadi, as well as Mayor Pro David Tem DeMott and Seymour, said the problem needs to be solved at the source.
“The solution out of this is not to ban the encampments,” Ezeadi said. “That just moves the problem into a different neighborhood”
DeMott said he sees the issue differently than Baker due to his past experiences.
“This is their stuff, this is their life, I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a situation where you’re living paycheck to paycheck and you lose your job, but I have, I have some empathy for what we’re looking at,” DeMott.
He supports giving resources to those who don’t have the capability to do certain things to be able to live life on their own.
“I think the majority of those paying taxes in Westminster would be behind that,” he said.
DeMott also emphasized that building more housing and affordable housing will not solve the issue but said it’s very complex.
McNally listed off all the encampments in the city, and said the needles, drug use and other activities are not humane for the businesses and those living in the apartments surrounding the encampments.
She echoed Baker’s call for enforcement of curfews at parks and open spaces.
As well, she noted that faith-based organizations have opportunities for everyone, like meals.
Tomas Herrera-Mishler, Westminster’s Parks Recreation and Libraries director, gave a presentation on what services the city provides and what resources are available.
Initiatives from the city include access to Colorado Legal Services, which gives legal advice to tenants facing eviction to prevent eviction before it happens, Colorado PEAK to apply for federal benefits, the libraries offer free high-speed internet, computers and knowledgeable people to help residents learn how to access the programs, the City’s homeless coordinator helps people figure out where they can go quickly where access hous9ng with friends or family and is someone is out of town, staff will work with them to get them back to their home community.
City staff also hired a Homeless Navigator in 2020. This person helps those experiencing homelessness obtain housing and provides immediate aid.
Herrera-Mishler said the Homeless Navigator helps prevent homelessness, is housing-focused, refers to cross-sectional partners and provides immediate needs. They do not do enforcement, abatement and are not a complaint line for the housed community.
In 2017, the number of homeless individuals in Westminster was about 110, Herrera-Mishler said. Right now, there are at least 200 individuals engaged with the Homeless Navigator.
He also said those experiencing homelessness in the seven-county Denver Metro area doubled for the first time in 2021 from the previous year.
Herrera-Mishler said the population appears to be in increasing and the soon-to-be-published census will help see the scope of the problem
Herrera-Mishler said the number one cause is the high price of housing compared to wages. The Median per capita annual income in Westminster is $38,188. An affordable rent for that income would be about $950 a month. The median monthly rent in Westminster is $1,801 a month.
He also noted that the Westminster municipal code does not allow homeless shelters in city limits
“There’s not enough options for people to stay indoors, that leads to increased outdoor encampments,” he said.
Disabilities, mental health, and many other factors contribute to homelessness. Many disabilities prevent people from keeping employment or stable housing, he said.
For the Homeless Navigator, the caseload is 13 individuals to 1 for chronic homelessness and 25 to 1 for non-chronic.
Councilor Emmons said the number of clients per navigator is too low, and compared her experience to her work with CASA, where she said clients are at about 150 per GAL.
Herrera-Mishler emphasized that working with the homeless population can be difficult because they have many things going on, such as disabilities that make the work harder. He said more navigators are needed.
“We definitely need more navigators, there’s no question about it,” Herrera-Mishler said.
A large caseload for a navigator will lead to burnout of the employee, he said.
Skarbek said that the number of clients per navigator comes from many studies that indicate that is what’s needed to house people.
He also said the Homeless Navigator housed 46 individuals since she was hired in 2020, and that number does not include the caseload she’s currently working with.
Ezeadi said with more navigators, city staff can address homelessness much faster and much more long-term and McNally agreed.
Skarbek said that neighboring jurisdictions hired more navigators and were successful in housing more people.