A proposal to create a navigation center to help those who are homeless in the areas of Littleton, Englewood and Sheridan is coming closer to reality after Arapahoe County approved $300,000 to be used over three years for the center.
The money will go to the South Metro Community Foundation, chaired by former Littleton mayor Susan Thornton, who said the funds will be enough to hire two full-time employees who can begin outreach efforts by the end of this year.
Pitched as a "one-stop shop" for resources, the navigation center would connect those who are homeless to services for healthcare, job training, food assistance, addiction recovery and more.
"The services are already here but people are not always connecting with those services," Thornton said. "There are a lot of barriers, and that's something I think the center can really help with."
The project is a part of a laundry list of proposals from a task force of leaders in Littleton, Englewood and Sheridan who launched the Tri-Cities Homeless Action Plan last summer to help get more people housed.
Prior to the announcement on March 10, the navigation center had just $10,000 approved from Arapahoe County, with $25,000 earmarked for a "feasibility study," a cost that would be split between the three cities.
Ultimately, the center will occupy a physical space where people could come to shower, do laundry and possibly stay the night.
Arapahoe County's funding alone will not be enough to secure brick and mortar space, as Thornton put it, but the center could manifest first through a shared space with an existing nonprofit. For the meantime, Thornton envisions a more mobile version where staff can meet people where they are to help connect them to a safety net.
Thornton said her foundation is currently waiting to hear back on grant applications to see what philanthropic support the center can get. In total, Thornton projects the center could cost about $212,000 per year to run if it were to occupy a physical space.
"It's past time that we should be doing this work, we want to start connecting people with needed services," she said.
Thorton made it clear the navigation center is not a shelter, something that other task force leaders have repeatedly emphasized.
"Emergency shelters are important especially when it's bitterly cold ... but it's a stop gap," she said.
Mike Sandgren, who heads Change the Trend, a network of nonprofits, churches and agencies working on homelessness solutions, said a navigation center will provide the social infrastructure needed to address homelessness in a way a shelter cannot
"What you don’t want to do is just stand up an emergency shelter and say ‘we solved homelessness’ because that’s not necessarily creating the system to move people beyond the experience of homelessness,” said Sandgren, who also serves on the tri-cities task force.
Still, Thornton said a shelter could appear sometime in the future and hopes the work of the navigation center will show the need for more investments in homelessness.
"I'm hopeful that, especially when people start seeing the statistics about how many people get off the street and into safe and secure housing, that the general public will be more supportive of resources for homeless," she said.
The Denver metro area is facing a rise in homeless numbers, with a 2021 study by the Metro Denver Homelessness Initiative showing the number of unhoused people in the region climbed by 15% between 2018 and 2020.
According to data from Arapahoe County, between January 2020 to January 2021, 17 people experiencing homelessness in the county died on the street from natural causes, 22 died by drug overdose and four died by hypothermia.
The navigation center will serve as just one of several proposed remedies to that crisis, with Littleton, Englewood and Sheridan looking to spend $705,000 over three years to put in place a litany of proposals. This includes affordable housing initiatives such as vouchers and staffing a “response team” to help people understand the bureaucratic process of obtaining driver’s licenses and birth certificates.
And recently, the three cities, as well as Arapahoe County's commissioners, approved a $330,000 contract to pay a homelessness coordinator for three years to helm the cities' action plan, though no one has yet to be named for that position.
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