Critique of the Continuum: Is Westminster's response to homelessness enough?

Luke Zarzecki
lzarzecki@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 11/21/22

Alan Farb isn’t satisfied with Westminster’s response to the rising homelessness in the city and he made that quite clear during their Nov. 14 study session discussion of the city’s …

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Critique of the Continuum: Is Westminster's response to homelessness enough?

Posted

Alan Farb isn’t satisfied with Westminster’s response to the rising homelessness in the city and he made that quite clear during their Nov. 14 study session discussion of the city’s Continuum of Compassion program.  

“I find this to be a rather disingenuous phrase that the city, primarily through this council, endorses and parades around as if it is being kind, merciful, humane when in fact the practice is the opposite,” he said. 

While he champions the two homeless navigators the city has hired to work with those experiencing homelessness to connect them to resources, he said the money sent from Westminster to Jefferson County to provide a space for those people to stay doesn’t make any sense since the facility would be in Arvada or Lakewood.

“To give neighboring cities Westminster dollars in hopes Westminster’s homeless will migrate to these cities? I find this ignorant and short-sighted,” he said. “We keep moving people and they go elsewhere in the city. Why? Because Westminster is their home.” 

He said the process of the Continuum makes it difficult for the homeless navigators to do their job if park rangers and police officers are dispersing those experiencing homelessness. He thinks the steps of the process are used to remove and redistribute the “resident homeless”  with the police force. 

The Continuum

The Continuum of Compassion was first presented to the city council at a study session on Sept. 19. The plan includes a mental health navigator program and homeless navigator program and spells out how they would respond to camps on private property, city open space and city parks, fields and structures.

The continuum consists of two services and a flow chart of three different scenarios of encampments on different types of property. Residents can report homeless encampments or concerns regarding people experiencing homelessness to the Westminster Police Department. 

Once reported, the city then determines what type of land the encampment is on. 

For private property, WPD will issue code enforcement actions. If there are environmental hazards, police will begin steps to ease and resolve the problem. Private property owners, Villano explained, must be willing to work with the police department to address it. 

For city-owned property other than parks, recreation and library buildings, offenders will be given a trespass notice. 

If an encampment is on city parks, recreation or library property, homeless navigators take the lead and will work with the people on-site to determine the next steps. However, if the individuals refuse service, then park rangers take over and will issue a trespass notice.

For recreation vehicles, they will be given 24-hour notice to vacate.

The mental health co-responder program is one service. It includes four and a half staff positions, which are three co-responders, one case manager and a part-time supervisor. The co-responders go on calls with the police department to help de-escalate situations.

Within the same realm is the homeless navigator program. This service provides two homeless navigators who help those unhoused find housing if they are willing. They also direct people to resources. 

The homeless navigators generally spend between five to ten hours each week going to the encampments to provide case management services, which may include benefit assistance, acquiring identification documents, health referrals and housing assistance.

Wins so far 

According to Andy Le, spokesperson for Westminster, Between January and June of 2022, the continuum has placed five people experiencing homelessness into permanent housing and is assisting 44 with applying for housing vouchers. 

The navigators have helped 25 individuals with services largely pertaining to obtaining identification documents so they are able to apply for benefits, employment and housing. 

23 individuals have received transportation assistance and 20 have entered into substance use treatment programs and/or mental health programs. 

14 households have received hotel vouchers for temporary housing and 12 have been connected with credit repair, education, employment programs or similar services.

As well, the city has cleaned up 45 encampments since the start of the year and is aware of 19 existing sites.

Council’s views

City Councilor Rich Seymour was the first to respond to Farb’s comments at the Nov. 14 discussion. He said he witnessed the process happen firsthand. 

Over the past four weeks, Seymour saw city staff and police officers help those experiencing homelessness near his office and commended the time and care those employees put in for those gentlemen. 

“Extraordinary levels of care that goes above and beyond what the businesses in our strip center wish to tolerate because it was not a positive for our business, but recognized these gentlemen were getting help and offered the services,” he said. 

He noted that Westminster doesn’t have enough resources to address the problem adequately, but to the best the city can do. 

City Councilor Obi Ezeadi said he thinks there is compassion but thinks there is more the city can do, such as emergency homeless shelters. He wants the city to fund a nonprofit to do that. 

“To Mr. Farb's point, a building in a different city is not best, it’s something that we chose to do and I back that, that the million dollars was spent well, but I think we can find resources,” he said. “It’s not a resource issue, it’s a will issue.” 

With the nights getting colder, he called on council to do more. 

City Councilor Sarah Nurmela echoed Ezeadi’s thoughts. 

City Councilor Lindsey Emmons said the Continuum is constantly changing since what worked three years ago may not work now, and she is excited to continue conversations regarding the topic.

Mayor Pro Tem David DeMott agreed, and said the funds going to Jefferson County have been in the works since he started on council. 

“There is only so much we can do,” Emmons said. 

Causes 

At a March 21 study session, Tomas Herrera-Mishler, Westminster’s Parks Recreation and Libraries director, talked about some of the causes of the worsening issue.

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 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.

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