As homeless numbers rise, Englewood, Littleton, Sheridan push toward solutions

South suburbs look to create 'action plan'

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As alarming numbers paint a picture of increasing homelessness in the Denver metro area — a trend that predates the pandemic but was likely worsened by it — advocates hope to build on promising efforts in the fight to get people off the street.

Pedestrians wrapped in large blankets, lying on walkways and begging for help along major roads are a common sight in Englewood and around metro Denver. And while the City of Denver continues to see the most visible homelessness in the region, some organizations that serve the unhoused have seen what appears to be rising homelessness to the south.

“I think we're feeling it to an increased degree in the Englewood area,” said Mike Sandgren, the leader of Change the Trend, a network of nonprofits and area churches working to address homelessness.

The uptick in homelessness seems apparent “whether folks are just kind of moving to a new location or whether folks are finding themselves on the streets in their hometown for the first time,” Sandgren said. “I think it's probably fair to say it's a little bit of both of those dynamics.”

Nearly 250 people were experiencing homelessness on one day in Arapahoe County in 2020, according to the “Point-in-Time” annual survey of the metro Denver homeless population. The count takes place over the span of about a day, typically in January.

But that's just a snapshot: Between July 1, 2020, and June 30, 2021, more than 32,000 people accessed services or housing support related to homelessness in the metro region, according to the most recent annual report by the Metro Denver Homeless
Initiative.

Year over year, the metro region saw a 99% increase in the number of people new to experiencing homelessness, according to the report. That's an increase the report calls “a direct result of the pandemic,” though the Denver area's housing affordability crisis has long contributed to financial instability that can lead to homelessness for families and individuals alike.

Amid the challenges last year, leaders in Englewood, Littleton and Sheridan approved a Tri-Cities Homeless Action Plan, designed to be carried out over the next three years.

Meanwhile, Change the Trend, which will play a role in supporting the plan, hopes to build on the partnerships the network has assembled over the past several years.

“We've taken a very informed approach in shaping this action plan,” said Samma Fox, the assistant to the city manager in Littleton. “We're very excited to move forward.”

'Expected growth'

Sandgren, the Change the Trend leader, says there seems to be more homelessness in the Englewood area now compared to 2019, before the pandemic put even more economic stress on metro Denver. His organization works to address homelessness in Englewood, Littleton and Sheridan.

At the Giving Heart homeless-services center on South Broadway — a place where people gather each week to eat a hot meal and access services such as a small computer lab — staff saw roughly 3,800 visits in 2020, with about 400 of those visits from new guests, according to Donna Zimmerman, the center's executive director.

In 2021, the center saw about 4,000 visits, with 244 from new guests, Zimmerman said. And while she didn't know how many of the total visits are from people who come to Giving Heart multiple times in a year, trends in homelessness don't seem to have changed, Zimmerman said.

The numbers at Giving Heart are “right on track with the expected growth in homelessness that we have seen over the past few years,” Zimmerman said.

While people sometimes think of individuals experiencing homelessness as drifting in from elsewhere — they're often referred to as “transient” — it's common for them to have ties to the area where they struggle with homelessness, advocates have told Colorado Community Media in recent years.

The 2017 Point-in-Time report from the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative found that of the 396 people who spent the night in Arapahoe County amid the survey and chose to answer a question about where they come from, 214 said their last permanent residence was in Arapahoe.

Likewise, of the 2,427 who answered the question and spent the night in Denver, 1,172 said Denver was their county of last permanent residence.

“Many of (the homeless) grew up, went to school and worked in the community where they are now experiencing homelessness,” Lynn Ann Huizingh, executive director of the nonprofit Severe Weather Shelter Network, said in 2019. The organization works to shelter homeless individuals in cold conditions at churches in Jefferson County and the Littleton-Englewood area.

At Cafe 180, a restaurant in Englewood that provides meals in exchange for volunteer service for those who can't pay, many of those who volunteer for food are experiencing homelessness, and some spend time in the Englewood area.

The volunteer clients are a mix of “those in the general radius” who staff know by name and “literally people we'll just see once,” said Tracey Brummett, director of community outreach for the cafe.

Zimmerman believes some of the visitors to Giving Heart sleep in certain shelter locations, local motels, cars and by the South Platte River, a waterway that links Englewood, Littleton and Sheridan. In general, many homeless families live “doubled up” in other people's homes.

Despite the challenges, Sandgren says the three-city region is in a better position to address the problem than it was in 2018 and 2019 in light of the homeless action plan's emergence.

“We're seeing a proportionate level of increase in the response, hopefully, to (match) the increase in the issue,” Sandgren said.

'A dedicated space'

Englewood, Sheridan and Littleton founded the Tri-Cities Homelessness Policy Group in 2018, partnering with nonprofits dedicated to addressing homelessness in the area.

The group's homeless action plan recommends focusing on “strengthening local governance of homeless programs, data collection, cross-jurisdictional partnerships, and community engagement.”

Among the most tangible recommendations in the plan: creating a “a central navigation center.”

“A dedicated space for walk-ins and client referrals is needed to help transient populations build trust, learn about services, and receive navigation support to apply for benefits and programs,” such as available housing services, the plan says.

That 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.

Brummett, of Cafe 180, feels a major issue is trying to connect services with people who may not have technology. Transportation can also be a hurdle for the homeless for getting to different resources.

“One place is open Monday-Wednesday, another place is open Tuesday-Thursday, and how do you keep track of it?” Brummett said. “It becomes discouraging and confusing when you don't have a consistent space and place for people to access (resources).”

Asked whether there are concerns that building a navigation center in the Littleton-Englewood area would attract camping outside the center, Fox, the assistant to the city manager in Littleton, said: “That's a question we hear often.”

“The reality is we have this population in the tri-cities (area) already,” Fox said. “It's not likely to be a `you build it, they will come' situation.”

Ultimately, the Tri-Cities group's push to collaborate may reach outside the three cities' immediate area.

“The hope is what we're building is not an island (and that) we're able to pair well with resources around the region, whether they're in the tri-cities or not,” Fox said.

Homeless, Englewood Colorado, Littleton, Sheridan, Tri-Cities Homeless Policy Group, Ellis Arnold

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