Feature: A Bump in the Road Home

Denver’s 10-year plan has accomplished a lot since it started in 2005, but can it keep up with growing poverty?

by Tim Covi
photographs by Ross Evertson

Looking at him now, you can still vaguely make out the silhouette of Bruce Wright’s youth. He sits in a dimly lit chair in his homey ground floor apartment, shadows rolling across the walls from passing cars. Barrel chest, heavy hands, his history of work and wander is etched subtly into him like a living tattoo. A hoarse cough shakes his body for a minute and pulls us out of his story about the past. He has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He sips water from an old plastic coke bottle and regains composure. His eyes are meek and honest as he takes us back to Arizona, California, Oregon.

  Bruce Wright photo by Ross Evertson "I was living off and on in hotel rooms, just kickin' it around wherever I could, you know. I spent quite some time sown at 11th Avenue Hotel. I started out at $10 a night just for the bed."In his 20’s, Bruce Wright was a smokejumper, dropping out of helicopters in the mountains of Arizona into blazing fires. Then he spent 16 years on the road in seven states peddling political petitions, a non-partisan, pay-per-signature job that let him wander and work at the same time. He landed in Chicago, Sacramento, Portland.

As time passed, he settled into Denver where he worked odd jobs through day labor centers. He lived with three other people in a hotel room.

“It was on Colfax. It was a run down hotel. The maids wouldn’t even come in and change the room,” he recalls. “You had to clean your own room, get your own linens. $1,300 a month! But we were all stuck in a rut. Everybody lived day-to-day on day labor money. We’d take turns, taking a day off. Somebody would stay home, clean the room, change the linens.”

In 2001, Bruce quit day labor, started vending the Denver VOICE downtown and lived out of the former Regency Tower hotel (now student housing). Then Denver’s boom days came. Downtown real estate transformed, and, as he says, “they threw us all out on the street.”

“After that I was living off and on in hotel rooms, just kickin’ it around wherever I could, you know. I spent quite some time down at 11th Avenue Hotel. I started out at $10 a night just for the bed,” he said.

That was his life well before he became acquainted with public housing, before he wound up in the hospital almost dead from a medication he was taking, before his vertebrae deteriorated under the strain of degenerative disc disease, before he got a herniated disc in his neck that pinched off nerves to his hands leaving him basically crippled for some time.

Bruce might not have considered himself homeless, but by many standards, bouncing from hotel to hotel, living doubled-up with no permanent residence, he was. He ended up fitting the profile that Denver’s department of human services was looking for in 2005 as it launched Denver’s Road Home, aimed at eliminating homelessness.

“I had a lot of health problems. I was in the hospital and almost died because my doctor gave me some non-narcotic pain medicine called naproxen. I was on it for, oh four years, and I didn’t realize that it can shut down your kidneys and bladder all at the same time,” Bruce says.

When he recovered, he went back to selling the VOICE on the 16th Street Mall, still living day-to-day, hand-to-mouth.

It was around that time that the city of Denver along with service providers began to develop Denver’s Road Home, a 10-year plan to end homelessness in the city. The plan starts with the housing first model, a theory of providing services to the homeless that entails providing housing first, and dealing with other issues that surround homelessness after getting someone settled into a stable living environment.

Denver’s Road Home is now entering its third year. The 10-year plan laid out by the Denver Commission to End Homelessness, and adopted by the Mayor and City Council in July 2005, has an ultimate goal of eliminating chronic homelessness in Denver by 2015, and reducing the number of transitionally homeless. Short-term benchmarks aim to reduce chronic homelessness by 75 percent by 2010.

Of course it’s not all altruistic.

Mayor John Hickenlooper, a successful Denver restaurant owner, has an entrepreneurial vision for Denver. It’s good business sense to make the city appear less destitute, especially in downtown business areas. And it’s good business sense to save the city service dollars by housing the homeless before they wind up in costly cycles through emergency rooms or jail.

Pat Coyle, housing coordinator for Department of Human Services (DHS), explains Denver’s Road Home is focused on the chronically homeless for two reasons. “We want to be able to help those with the greatest needs first. And that cost is also a factor in targeting that population for sure,” he says, referring to the cost of providing services to someone living on the streets versus someone in a stable living situation.

And the cost savings is an important consideration to make, as it can free up dollars to provide more services. Jamie Van Leeuwen, project manager of Denver’s Road Home, says the chronically homeless are most successful in our housing first model. “If you surround them with services: mental health; substance abuse; medical services, you save money, you improve their quality of life, their income increases, and they actually contribute to paying their housing.”

In 2006, the Housing First Collaborative did a cost benefit analysis of the housing provided to chronically homeless individuals through Denver’s Road Home.  The report compares emergency spending on a group of homeless individuals for the two years before they were in housing, and the two years after being in the housing first program. They found that, “when the investment costs of providing comprehensive supportive housing and services through the Housing First Program are factored in, there is a net cost savings of $4,745 per person.” The potential cost savings for the 442 chronically homeless persons in Denver, if provided access to housing first programs, would be $2,097,290.

Bruce was one of the first people to enter the program. He remembers being baffled and doubtful about the whole thing. “They had seen me vending the paper every single day. They came up to me and asked me, ‘Bruce, would you like housing?’ and my first question is, ‘Well, what do I have to do for it.’ And they said, ‘That’s the whole thing. Nothin!’ I said, ‘C’mon you’re pullin’ my leg. There’s gotta be strings attached.’ They said, ‘Nope.’ So I said, ‘Okay, yeah I’m up for it.’”

To some, the open-door philosophy of the housing first model is still debatable. Jeanne Faatz, city councilwoman for District 2 in Southwest Denver says, “I would like to see there be the commitment that people really want to get their lives turned around, and in exchange they can get housing. It’s a matter of equity.”

Equity in this case refers to people in her district who fall between the cracks, not street-homeless, but not living independently, and who are unable to use transitional or permanent housing solutions.

“Many of my constituents are doubling up and would love to have their own apartment, but can’t afford it. So it gets a little touchy if you then provide an apartment to someone who doesn’t pay for it themselves,” Faatz said.

As far as Denver’s Road Home and Bruce are concerned, housing first works, though. “Without Denver’s Road Home there’s no preference for the people with the greatest need when it comes to public housing,” Coyle says.  He also points out that residents in the housing-first program are expected to pay at least 30 percent of their income toward their housing. Only residents who have no income aren’t required to contribute.

Additionally, the no-strings-attached approach reaches people who otherwise wouldn’t accept services.       

"It’s not a clean and sober thing, Bruce says, “although the coalition likes you to be.”

“I’m an avid beer drinker,” Bruce continued “So there’s no AA meetings, there’s no group meetings, none of that stuff. I mean, I figure what the hell. I’ve lived a good life all that time without it, don’t attach strings to my life that I’m not having right now, cause I’m not gonna go for it.”

He was almost a poster child for the 10-year plan’s housing first concept. He wouldn’t set foot in a program that required a certain lifestyle or set of beliefs to participate. But he was an ambitious tumbleweed-drifter, always working, living out of hotels, a physical disability putting him one mishap and one paycheck away from living on the street.

In fact, about a year into his life in transitional housing, a disc in his neck cracked and left his arms and hands useless. Had he been living in a hotel, without supportive services, he might have been completely destitute.

“It got so bad I couldn’t even do anything,” he recalls. “I’d grab my pill bottle and it’d just…phewp…onto the floor,” he says, drawing out the pill bottle’s trajectory to the floor with his right hand as if his left had a whole in it. He stretches his left arm out as he tells us about spinal surgery and physical therapy, flexing his fist in a display of the slow agony of rehabilitation.

Now Bruce Wright has a one-bedroom apartment through a Denver’s Road Home housing partner; still a transitional unit, but he has long-term plans and goals. He pays 1/3 of his rent through his disability check. He meets with an outreach worker a couple times a month. He wants to go back to school—something in electronics.

“I’m thinking about going back to college and furthering my education…maybe get a degree, and try to go back to work to where I can get off of the social security disability. As long as I’m doing something that’s not physical labor, I’ll be able to do that,” he says

But for the time being, he applies every six months for a section 8 housing voucher so he can move into permanent affordable housing. It’s about the 5th or 6th time he’s put his name in the section 8 lottery.

“I’m waitin’ for ‘em to mail me my number,” he says casually, but not without some reservation. 14,000 people dropped applications into the section 8 lottery on February 26 and 27.

Cost benefits and personal stories aside, whether the coalition working under the banner of Denver’s Road Home can make its benchmarks to reduce chronic homelessness by 75 percent by 2010, and end homelessness in Denver by 2015, is hazy at best. All indications from Denver’s Road Home annual reports suggest that they’re steaming along on target, but point-in-time surveys for the past three years tell a different story.

The most recent DRH report released for year-end 2008 says they have created 1,243 new units of housing for the homeless since the plan’s inception. With that many units of housing now online you would expect a significant dent in Denver’s homeless population, but since 2006 homelessness has dropped only 7 percent.

The units are divided between permanent affordable housing, which is housing that someone can remain in indefinitely, and transitional housing, which a resident can typically use for one to two years while resolving barriers and finding a permanent home. Breaking this number down, Pat Coyle points out that between 2005 and 2008, Denver’s Road Home created 425 units of permanent affordable housing for the chronically homeless, 778 units of permanent affordable housing for the transitionally homeless, and 40 transitional housing units.

In 2009, DRH plans to bring an additional 424 units online: 244 permanent housing for families; and 180 permanent units for the chronically homeless. Denver’s Road Home website also boasts that “since implementation, Denver has seen an 11percent drop in homelessness and a 36 percent decrease in chronic homelessness.”

But hard numbers look very different. From 2006 to 2008, the total number of homeless in the city and county of Denver dropped from 4,491 to 4,172, according to Point in Time (PIT) surveys. But in that same period, chronic homelessness has increased from 379 people in 2006 to 442 people in 2008. As a percentage of the whole, chronic homelessness has decreased about 2 percent, but in terms of the number of people experiencing it, it has gone up roughly 14 percent.

This population is always one that will fluctuate. It’s dependant upon a dozen variables, and people who were transitionally homeless last year might become chronically homeless the next year with worsening circumstances.

Additionally, chronic homelessness can be defined by different factors, resulting in different numbers. The PIT surveys use the Housing and Urban Development definition, which says a chronically homeless person has both a disability, and has been on the street for longer than 1 year, or multiple times in the course of three years. If you take out disabilities, and look strictly at length of stay on the street, 708 individuals were chronically homeless during the PIT survey of 2006, and 575 in 2007.

Regardless, though, 1,243 units of housing accounts for almost 28 percent of Denver’s 2006 homeless population. So why hasn’t the number of homeless dropped more significantly?
The most obvious explanation is the dying economy. Unemployment in Denver is now at 8.2 percent, and foreclosures have put both homeowners and renters at a loss. Low-wage workers and even formerly middle class just can’t keep up.   

The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless reports that “in Colorado there is not a single county where a minimum wage worker ($7.02 per hour) can afford the fair market rent for a one-bedroom apartment working 40 hours per week. In order to afford a two-bedroom apartment, a minimum wage earner must work 92 hours per week, 52 weeks per year.”

Bette Iacino, Colorado Coalition for the Homeless Director of Education and Advocacy, says that with the current economic realities, plans are good, but more important than a 10-year plan is what we do now. “We can’t prevent poverty, but we can react more quickly. We need to move people into housing as quickly as possible,” she says.

John Parvensky, president and CEO of CCH, says in a state of homelessness report that “at the state level, Colorado continues to be one of the only states in the nation that provides no dedicated State funding to address homelessness. In addition, the state spends only $2 million of its general fund on affordable housing development—significantly below what is needed to meet the housing needs of low-income and homeless families and individuals.”

Parvensky also points to the fact that the Department of Human Services cut $1.4 million from homeless housing and service programs. According to his report, that represents 24 percent of the Human Services Fund for homeless services, although it is a smaller portion of the Denver’s Road Home budget altogether. City council is also considering a proposal to allocate 2.5 million dollars from a contingency fund to homeless and child-care services, potentially shoring up some of the shortfall.

With economic realities like this, eliminating, or even reducing homelessness, becomes like a struggle against Hydra, the nine-headed dragon of Greek mythology. Chop one head off and two grow back.
Without strong focus from other agencies on the roots of poverty that create the environment for homelessness, Denver’s Road Home might constantly be responding to an increasing demand for housing, and increasing numbers of homeless.  

According to the national 2008 Hunger and Homelessness Survey, 77 percent of the cities surveyed said more affordable housing would be a top priority in terms of addressing hunger. This was followed by an increase in food stamp payments (55 percent of cities), and an increase in utility assistance programs (45 percent of cities), all preventative measures that would go a long way to reducing the need for homeless housing.

Jamie Van Leeuwen, project manager for Denver’s Road Home, says prevention will work, and Denver’s Road Home is focusing some energy in that direction. “Family homelessness is a different animal in the sense that if you prevent somebody from losing their housing, and you do it right…they’re not going to be back through your door next month,” Van Leeuwen said. Prevention measures from Denver’s Road Home include eviction assistance, utility shut off and foreclosure assistance.

DRH has provided eviction assistance to 957 individuals and families since the plan began in 2005. It’s a small number relative to the needs of Denver households, approximately 15 percent of which fall below 30 percent of the area median income. But it’s also 957 fewer families that might have become homeless without that help.

The question, then, remains: What next? Erin O’Sullivan, a Family Advocate at Volunteers of America, which works with Denver’s Road Home, says they’re exploring that.

“We have the initial funneling people into housing, then the services, but what’s the third step? Because most people don’t want to stay in public housing all their life,” O’Sullivan said. “Jumping to homeownership might be a little too far, but looking at how people can move into a tax credit property or market rent property with their family is a good step.”