Homelessness isn’t just a financial problem — it can be a life-or-death matter, statistics from the Arapahoe County Coroner’s Office show.
From January 2020 to January 2021, 17 people experiencing homelessness in Arapahoe County died of natural causes on the street, 22 died by drug overdose, and four died by hypothermia — a condition caused by exposure to cold temperatures — possibly made worse by substance use.
“Experiencing homelessness on the street exacerbates chronic medical and behavioral health conditions that are costly to local governments and create life-threatening results,” says the Tri-Cities Homeless Action Plan, a document that cited the county’s numbers on deaths.
It’s one of the reasons why Englewood, Littleton and Sheridan are carrying out a plan to address homelessness in the three cities’ region.
The early steps in the plan are unfolding as numbers continue to paint a picture of increasing homelessness in the Denver metro area, according to the most recent annual report by the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative. The rise in homelessness in metro Denver is a trend that predates the pandemic but was likely worsened by it.
And for those who experience homelessness on the streets rather than temporarily staying with a friend or family or living in motels, finding help can be difficult. There are currently no short-term, emergency, overnight shelters in Arapahoe County, according to a county spokesperson.
The plan to address homelessness in Englewood, Littleton and Sheridan identified a few broad goals:
• Stop homelessness before it starts.
• Identify individuals at risk and ensure they are safe.
• Connect people with the support they need to quickly exit homelessness.
One of the main steps the cities may take: creating a “central navigation center” where the unhoused can learn about available services and get help applying for benefits and programs, such as for available housing, the plan says.
Another step could involve launching “outreach teams” to engage the outdoor homeless population and help people navigate enrollment into various assistance programs, the plan says.
One early step in the plan appears to be coming to fruition: hiring a regional homelessness coordinator to help implement the plan. Arapahoe County’s elected leaders recently approved an agreement with Englewood, Littleton and Sheridan to hire a full-time coordinator.
Some items in the plan may take years to carry out. Here’s a look at the plan’s most prominent steps and when some may be tackled.
A central resource
There appeared to be an uptick in homelessness in 2021 compared to 2020 and 2019 in the Englewood, Littleton and Sheridan areas, according to Mike Sandgren, the leader of Change the Trend. That’s a network of nonprofits and area churches that works to address homelessness in the three cities.
The factors that lead to homelessness for a person or family can be complex, but according to research cited by the three cities’ action plan, the reasons can include:
• Lack of access to affordable housing.
• Changes to, or inability to secure, employment.
• Physical and behavioral health challenges.
• And fragile or troubled social relationships.
Without a place to sleep, receive mail, wash clothes, shower and store belongings, addressing the core problems can prove too difficult for unhoused people becuase their time can be preoccupied with finding food and walking miles to reach necessary resources.
The “central navigation center” that Englewood, Littleton and Sheridan may create could take the form of a “stand-alone location that has capacity to support the co-location of additional county and nonprofit services, and provision of client basic needs such as day-storage, showers, mailboxes, laundry, and pop-up shelter for inclement weather or other emergencies,” the plan says.
Englewood, Sheridan and Littleton founded the Tri-Cities Homelessness Policy Group in 2018, partnering with nonprofits dedicated to addressing homelessness in the area.
In the summer of 2021, the city councils of Englewood, Littleton and Sheridan approved the Tri-Cities Homeless Action Plan, according to Englewood’s website. The plan was intended to be implemented over the span of three years.
The plan lists the navigation center’s creation as a year 2 goal. It is not clear where it could be built.
Arapahoe County could provide $300,000 toward the Tri-Cities navigation center out of the county’s portion of economic relief funding from the federal American Rescue Plan Act, a law enacted in response to the coronavirus pandemic. But that depends on how much money the three cities can come up with from other sources, according to the county.
“The county will only provide the partial funds once the entity in question secures the rest of the amount needed, so it’s essentially a conditional pledge,” said Luc Hatlestad, county spokesperson.
Bringing helpers together
The plan recommends designating a lead homeless-service provider to coordinate services for single adults experiencing homelessness. The lead provider could be Change the Trend, the plan says.
Similarly, the plan urges choosing a lead provider to coordinate services for families experiencing homelessness.
“Family Tree may be a natural partner as the organization currently operates an interim housing facility in Sheridan and works closely with the local school districts,” the plan says.
Family Tree is an organization that offers emergency shelter, an information help line, homeless-prevention services, education and employment services, and various other resources.
The cities’ plan also lays out the goal of hiring a regional homelessness coordinator — a full-time official — to help implement the plan.
The coordinator could develop partnerships with key organizations such as the local school districts, Tri-County Health Department and the Denver Foundation to take advantage of resources, the plan says.
The coordinator could also communicate with homelessness-related staff in surrounding communities “to engage in joint advocacy for policies and funding at local, regional, and statewide levels,” the plan adds.
On Jan. 18, the Arapahoe County Board of Commissioners approved an agreement between the Tri-Cities municipalities and the county to hire a coordinator.
The agreement was still being reviewed and approved by “all involved parties,” Hatlestad said in late February. The county hasn’t yet posted the opening for the job position, Hatlestad said.
Hitting the street
One of the more hands-on recommendations in the plan is to create teams that would seek out unhoused people outdoors.
“Ideally a coordinated outreach team for the Tri-Cities region would consist of two roving 2-to-3-person outreach teams that for at least 5 days a week are engaging the street population and helping them navigate enrollment into the various homeless (support) programs,” the plan says.
The plan also says: “The City of Englewood Homeless Case Management program embedded within the local police department is a preliminary model that can be scaled and expanded.”
“Case management” is a term that refers to assessment and planning regarding a person’s needs in order to connect them to the right services, according to the plan.
The plan also recommends tapping local mental and physical health-care providers to explore creating a “medical street team.” Street medical teams can provide wound care and vital health screenings and renew prescriptions, the plan says.
“Medical street teams reduce expensive emergency services such as ambulance transports, emergency room visits, and (severe) deteriorating health conditions,” the plan says.
The plan lists the coordinated outreach team as a year 2 goal and the discussion about whether to create a street medicine team as a year 3 goal.
A safe place
People who are newly homeless tend to sleep in their car while trying to maintain other supports such as employment and proximity to family members and to stabilize school access for children, the plan says in recommending a safe parking program.
“Safe parking programs have emerged over the past few years to use public and private parking lots after hours to offer a safe place to sleep,” the plan says. “Participants must pre-register to access the parking lots.”
Denver recently approved a permit to allow people living in their cars to park overnight in a church parking lot, news outlet Denverite reported. The city’s planning office issued a temporary zoning permit on July 9 to let First Universalist Church establish a “safe outdoor space” for up to eight cars in a limited area in the church’s lot, located at Colorado Boulevard and Hampden Avenue, according to Denverite.
The Englewood, Littleton and Sheridan plan lists a potential safe parking program as a year 2 goal.
On the job
Landing a job can be key to exiting homelessness, and the plan recommends partnering with programs that can place homeless individuals in the workforce.
An organization called Bridge House may come to the Littleton-Englewood-Sheridan area, according to Sandgren. The organization offers a one-year transitional housing program and focuses on “vocational empowerment,” or providing job experience, Sandgren said.
Voices that have been there
Another initiative that could help address homelessness: hearing from people who have experienced it.
The plan recommends that the Tri-Cities effort include a “Lived Experience Advisory Board” to help guide policies to address homelessness in the region. The board could be composed of five to seven members who are currently housed but have experienced homelessness in the region, the plan says. That’s a year 2 goal.
Also proposed is a possible peer-support specialist program to extend outreach to immigrant families at risk of homelessness. That’s listed as a year 2 initiative.
“There are many fears and sometimes cultural shame in accessing public and private resources for assistance,” the plan says.
Eye on data
The plan also considers how to use data to evaluate what strategies are working to lessen homelessness.
A homeless management information system, or HMIS, is designed to capture information over time on the characteristics, service needs and accomplishments of homeless individuals, according to the plan.
The plan suggests local governments encourage local homeless-service agencies to participate in data entry into the HMIS. That’s a year 1 goal.
Using the HMIS “enables communities to better understand the local needs and dynamics among specific subpopulations of people experiencing homelessness, as well as measure the performance of their approaches to preventing and ending homelessness,” the plan says.
Expanding housing opportunities for people in the process of exiting homelessness is also a recommendation.
That could include shared housing — renting rooms in a single-family dwelling to unrelated persons to make the housing more affordable — and strengthening outreach to private landlords to increase participation in housing rental subsidy programs. Those are listed as year 2 goals.
The plan suggests evaluating in year 3 whether the three-city region needs so-called permanent supportive housing units.
Permanent supportive housing is long-term housing that has supportive services for homeless persons with disabilities. The “permanent” housing can be provided in one structure or in several structures at one site or in multiple structures at scattered sites, the plan says.
Under “permanent” supportive housing, the housing unit is subsidized, and services such as mental health and substance-use support and financial management are provided at appropriate levels for as long as the person needs it, the plan says.
See the text of the plan here by scrolling down under the heading “Tri-Cities Homeless Action Plan.”