Out of Sight, Out of Mind

By Jamie Swinnerton | Photos by Giles Clasen

Families with children are the largest group of people experiencing homelessness in the Denver metro area. They are often considered to be the “hidden” homeless.

There is a misconception today that homelessness in non-urban areas does not exist because it cannot be easily spotted. Homelessness in many suburban and rural areas exists—but it is often hidden. 

“I think often homelessness is not as visible when you get outside of an urban setting, therefore there’s an inclination for people to think there’s not the need, or it’s not an issue,” said Gary Sanford, executive director of the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative. It may not be easy to spot, but that does not mean that homelessness does not exist in every neighborhood and county in Colorado.  

Marquita Harris became homeless when she moved to Denver from Dallas and her housing fell through. Marquita is now living in Englewood after getting support from Family Promise. She is a student at Community College of Denver.Within the Denver metro area there are numerous shelters, food banks, emergency services, and job training facilities for those experiencing homelessness to utilize. But move farther out from the crowded metro hub and these resources become scarce. In some places they are nonexistent. Because of this uneven distribution of resources, homelessness in Evergreen looks vastly different from homelessness on the 16th Street Mall. People living on the streets, or simply having trouble finding a stable living condition, adapt in different ways according to where they are and what is available to them. Those experiencing housing instability outside of an urban area may not have shelters, but they do have community. 

Point-In-Time (PIT) studies from MDHI indicate that families with children, not individuals, are now the largest group of people experiencing homelessness and housing instability in the Denver metro area. Families often steer clear of the city center, where it’s more difficult to park a car or find space for a group to sleep. Households with children also aren’t eager to uproot their kids, pulling them away from friends, school, and possibly other family members that live nearby. Because of this, homeless families, especially outside of urban areas, remain unseen. 

“You’re not seeing families that are out panhandling or sleeping under bridges,” Sanford said. “Largely that’s going to be a little more hidden from public view.” In order to stay within their suburban community, some families will live out of their car, or in a cheap hotel. 

Housing for anyone living in unstable conditions is scarce, but some local organizations aim to help families specifically. Family Promise is an organization that shelters families with children under the age of 18 in congregations here in Colorado. Currently, they work with 25 congregations that can house five families each. They reach as far west as Golden, as far south as Highlands Ranch, and as far east as Aurora. As housing becomes more expensive, the organization can hardly keep up with the demand for their services. Jolynn Snyder, executive director for Family Promise, believes that the recent legalization of marijuana has played a part in the housing boom that has pushed many local residents out of their homes. “We have been overwhelmed since the legalization of marijuana, and many, many families, and I’m sure singles, are coming from out of state for new opportunities,” Snyder said. “There are so many agencies doing great work, we’re just overwhelmed. We can’t even meet the needs of our own Denver metro area residents.” 

Marquita Harris was one such individual looking to move to Denver for better opportunities. Harris moved from Dallas, Texas, last October. She had a job lined up, and was enrolled in the Community College of Denver. When her housing fell through and she needed somewhere to live with her two young children, she turned to Family Promise. “I just needed Family Promise for shelter purposes, because I pretty much had myself established before I went there,” said Harris. 

Her story is a common one. Finding jobs is not the problem these days—finding affordable housing is. Moving outward from the metro area and into a rural community with cheaper housing isn’t an option for many people. “No one ever thinks about a rural area unless you have a personal connection out there,” Harris said. Even if she had a connection in a rural area outside of central Denver, her job and school are in the metro area. Moving out of the urban center would have made transportation difficult. 

Along with families couch surfing or living out of their cars, there are those forced to live in tents. “We do have a large group that are camping in the woods. That itself creates a whole lot of different issues for folks,” Sharon Smith, executive director of Evergreen Christian Outreach (EChO), said of some people experiencing homelessness in the Evergreen area. “People in downtown Denver aren’t dealing with the bears.” As summer ends and the weather turns colder, those camping in the woods aren’t prepared to live outside in the winter months. But, just like in central Denver, housing is limited and expensive. The only emergency shelter in the Evergreen area is for victims of domestic abuse, not for the homeless. 

“We put out all kinds of pleas, trying to figure out where we can put people. Particularly when the weather’s starting to get bad. Nobody wants to be living in a tent when it starts snowing up here,” Smith said. Smith and her team will soon be looking into tiny houses as shelter options like those that have popped up in Portland, Oregon. The idea behind the tiny homes solution is to create a house for one or two people with just the necessities, and that would cost a fraction of what a typical house would. 

Within the Evergreen community the call has been sent out for anyone with a room or a cabin to rent. Although few people have housing options to offer, they want to help in other ways. People in the area have offered to help families come up with the money necessary to pay security deposits, down payments, or first and last month’s rent in the event that they do find a place to live. 

Photo by Giles ClasenFamily Promise has recently been able to start a rental assistance program to help families make the necessary payments for a place to live. With the help of a HOME grant from Arapahoe County, they have recently expanded their operation to provide up to two years of rental assistance to some families leaving the emergency shelter program and moving into a place of their own. But Snyder still worries about housing for the families that use Family Promise. “If the housing market doesn’t correct itself, I’m not sure what our families are going to do a year from now,” Snyder said. 

Mag Strittmatter, executive director of The Action Center in Fort Collins, says there isn’t enough government action to address the housing problem. “HUD has de-emphasized its financial support for shelter programming, programs like ours. As a result we no longer receive funding from HUD,” Strittmatter said. “So there really is a lack of attention from the federal government down to local communities as to how can we deal with this issue, which is still a very prevalent one.” The focus has moved toward wrap-around services, which are all the other services outside of housing, including health care and counseling. 

A large part of the overall problem is that it’s difficult to find, in any community, all of the people that need help. But finding those in need is even harder outside of the metro area. 

“In Denver you can do street outreach and you can really try to engage with folks who are sleeping outside,” said Sanford. “It’s a lot harder, in the outlying areas, in the rural areas, trying to find the families or the single individuals in need.” It’s difficult to measure the level of homelessness outside of an urban area without places like shelters or food banks where those in need congregate. 

“While shelters and emergency services are important because they save lives, they don’t provide permanency. They don’t resolve the individual or family’s situation,” Sanford said. “I think it’s important that we have to keep looking at housing. We can build shelters all we want, but that’s very costly and doesn’t address the fundamental issue that is stable housing.” This sentiment is echoed out through the suburbs right into the mountain towns. Housing does become cheaper the farther away you move from the Denver metro area, but the resources start to disappear. As the resources disappear, so do the people, until soon they become the invisible homeless. ■