Littleton forum shares realities of homelessness

Speakers urge more community involvement, understanding

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Paula McFadden had a 21-year career at a dentist's office before she became homeless. 
 
“I had a life event and everything got taken away,” she said. “It's a struggle, and you don't know where to turn or how to start once you've lost everything.” 
 
McFadden joined a panel of eight other speakers during an Oct. 21 forum to inform Littleton residents about the state of homelessness in the city.
 
The event, “Challenges of Homelessness,” was put on by the South Metro Community Foundation in collaboration with GraceFull Community Cafe, the City of Littleton, and Change the Trend, an organization founded to bring together stakeholder groups to address issues around homelessness. 
 
Hosted inside the South Fellowship Church off Broadway, at least 100 community members filled the seats to hear from McFadden as well as social workers, community managers and a Littleton police officer about the stigma and struggles surrounding homelessness. 
 
Dane Fowler, a clinical supervisor for AllHealth Network, a community mental health center, said homelessness should be understood through a lens of trauma, rather than associating people who are homeless just with mental health issues or addiction problems.
 
“There are a wide spectrum of reasons why someone may find themselves without a home,” he said. 
 
People can suffer from unsafe homes in which they are the victims of emotional abuse and neglect, said Fowler, and once someone becomes homeless this trauma compounds and can lead to or exacerbate issues of mental illness or addiction. 
 
“When you think of trauma and how that can impact a person's sense of self … and how it can make them feel powerless, it can help us understand why someone may be more likely to experience a mental health challenge or choose to use substances to relieve that pain,” Fowler said. 
 
Hal Mandler, commander for the Littleton Police Department, said officers typically act as the “Band-Aid of the situation” when responding to 911 calls made about homeless people. 
 
“Where we fall short, as a police department, is we don't have the ability to provide medium- or long-range solutions,” he said, adding that officers typically choose between sending a person to jail or a hospital depending on the situation. 
 
The department, Mandler said, is now partnered with AllHealth to provide clinicians to accompany officers who are interacting with people who are homeless in order to provide them with better care and resources. 
 
One of those clinicians is Andrea Martin, who said her team's focus is on preventing incarceration by getting people what they need in the moment. She said she hopes her team can grow in the future with more funding and community awareness. 
 
Speakers also gave an overview of homelesness in Littleton and the surrounding Denver metro area, which they said the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated. 
 
Jeanne Hildreth, who works with Littleton Public Schools (LPS) on behalf of the federal McKinney-Vento anti-homlessness program, said currently there are at least 100 LPS students with parents who are homeless. 
 
But homelessness can often be hard to spot and Hildreth suspects there are many more families who are struggling with being unhoused. 
 
“Most of those hundred (who have been identified as homeless) are not living on the street,” Hildreth said, adding that some families live in shared spaces with others or in hotels. 
 
Sandra Blythe-Perry, executive director for Integrated Family Community Services, said her organization has been serving Littleton and the metro area by helping families and individuals with financial aid, something she said is key to preventing them from slipping into homelessness. Before the pandemic, Blythe-Perry said her organization was helping about 600 people per month. Now she's serving about 5,000. 
 
Samma Fox, an assistant to Littleton's city manager, said as homelessness continues to remain a pressing issue, the city is looking at a new action plan, which could use federal money from the American Rescue Plan, to address it. 
 
As speakers looked to solutions, they all encouraged a commitment to compassion from the community.
 
“Kindness, compassion, generosity of the smallest thing,” said McFadden, the woman experiencing homelessness. “I don't want to be here. It happened, and I'm here and I'm trying to crawl my way out.”
 
Rich Allen, systems supervisor for Bemis Library, said community members need to show empathy with their unhoused neighbors. 
 
“As a nation we've become so divided, we've become very polarized,” he said. “The one thing you can do, right now is step forward … and get to know the people around you.”
 
Jodi Nicholls, owner of the antique store Lollygag Antiques in Littleton, said building relationships with people who are experiencing homelessness is vital to defusing the tension that business owners may sometimes feel. She also said she wished she had more informational flyers she could hand out to people in need of help. 
 
“I would love some resources that I can give them to help them seek whatever it is that they're seeking,” she said. 
 
But small acts of generosity alone won't fix the problem, and McFadden said she'd like to see a day center in Littleton where homeless people can stay and feel safe, especially as winter approaches. 
 
“Handing out blankets even,” McFadden said. “That's a start there.” 
 
The South Metro Community Housing Foundation is currently working with the cities of Littleton, Englewood and Sheridan to establish a Homeless Services Navigation Center where unhoused people can stay and be connected to resources. You can go to tinyurl.com/navigationcenter to make a donation towards the center.

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