The need for improved housing policies was a centerpiece during the most recent discussion between south metro officials on how best to curb their cities' rise in homelessness.
With a coalition of the cities of Littleton, Englewood and Sheridan in its fifth year and the implementation of their Tri-Cities Homeless Action Plan in its first year, at least 11 people have been known to be housed from the efforts, according to Mike Sandgren, Arapahoe County's coordinator for homelessness services, during an Oct. 6 meeting.
The metro area's homeless population was estimated to have grown by 12.8% this year compared to 2021, totaling at least 6,888 people, according to preliminary data from the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative point-in-time survey.
Sandgren said as more partnerships take off, such as with Bridge House — a workforce training and housing program for single adults — he expects that number will soon increase. But it comes as the three cities have already shelled out a slew of funding for homelessness and housing-related projects, with the action plan alone expected to cost more than $700,000 over three years.
"We’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars so far. How many people have we actually housed?" said Littleton District 2 Councilmember Jerry Valdes.
Current action plan items underway include new partnerships with workforce training programs, metrics and data collection for homeless populations in the region and beginning street outreach that can "make contact with them, build relationships and ultimately make service referrals," Sandgren said.
But the rise in unhoused populations is further escalating urgency for local officials to find more wide-scale solutions — one being more investment in affordable housing.
“The key is housing and the idea of housing first," said Littleton Mayor Kyle Schlachter. “That allows them to be successful in the work and the other services."
Englewood City Councilmember At-Large Rita Russell disagreed and said "housing first isn’t really the solution, it’s work fist." Russell speculated that some unhoused residents would fail to keep housing because of mental health and substance abuse issues and stressed those as areas that may need more focus.
A study published in October 2020 by the University of Denver Center for Housing and Homelessness Research found the top five reasons why individuals in the tri-cities area reported being homeless were all economic. Of 121 people surveyed, 51% said they lost a job, 43% were unable to pay rent, 43% had a change in employment, 35% had an unaffordable expense and 34% sited rising housing costs.
Russell also took issue with what she said was Englewood taking on more homeless resources than Littleton or Sheridan — pointing to the city as the only one of the three with a severe weather shelter, housed at a local church.
“When people come into Englewood, you see them all over … if Englewood is going to share the brunt of that, that’s problematic to me," Russel said, adding that “we have a limited amount of taxpayer dollars that we can spend, and we need to make sure we can afford this."
Sandgren said homelessness remains "an issue nationwide, it’s not just a Front Range or metro challenge," and emphasized collaboration between the three cities was at the heart of their action plan.
Though Englewood alone has stood up funding for CrossPurpose — a career-coaching organization aimed at finding work for people in poverty — and paid the most between the three cities to renovate a south Englewood building to house another workforce program, Littleton and Sheridan have made investments in the action plan.
That includes a three-way split to fund the coordinator position held by Sandgren — to the tune of $110,000 per year for three years — and support for a navigation center where homeless residents in the tri-cities region can access a slew of resources. That is in addition to other policies and projects made over the past year that, while mainly specific to each city, could support homeless and low-income populations across the region.
That includes the largest Habitat for Humanity development in Colorado, which sits in Sheridan Square — located at the intersection of Hampden Avenue and Federal Boulevard — and is estimated to house about 355 people.
“I think it has really revitalized that area of our city," said Sheridan Mayor Tara Beiter-Fluhr.
One major policy that garnered attention during the meeting was an affordable housing mandate, set to be introduced to Littleton's city council as an inclusionary housing ordinance within weeks. Under that proposal, developers would be both compelled and incentivized to build more affordable units in housing projects aimed at residents making between 60% and 80% of the area median income, or AMI.
According to Arapahoe County AMI data for 2021, that would represent a spectrum of people making between $42,000 and $56,000 per year in Littleton. For a family of four, it would be between $60,000 and $80,000 per year.
Englewood Mayor Othoniel Sierra showed interest and support in his city council adopting a similar measure and Sheridan City Manager Devin Granberry said such a policy is "on our to-do list."
And with the potential success of Proposition 123 in the upcoming Nov. 8 election, Colorado may have a new fund to provide hundreds of millions in affordable housing aid to local governments, should voters approve allowing the state to siphon a small slice of state income tax for such a fund.
Ultimately, Schlachter said, these policies must be aimed at addressing the core or homelessness: needing a home. Through that, he believes more residents can then work on addressing issues like addiction and mental health.
“People that have shelter are much more likely to get the help and seek the help that they need," he said.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story's headline contained the number of people who were said to be housed because of the cities' efforts so far. The headline has been changed because of a need for greater context regarding the spending programs.
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