The National Coalition for the Homeless met in Denver Colorado for their twice yearly face to face meeting and held a conference on criminalization of homelessness. Denver is one of the 25 largest cities in America, and has made some progress on homelessness in America, but has a long way to go. It is the state capital so there are far more resources available in Denver than other Colorado cities, but there are many people sleeping outside. There is no guaranteed access to shelter like in New York and Cleveland.
The police regularly ask homeless people to move along, but never answer the question, "to where?" There are many who travel through Denver to greener pastures. I met a man who was sleeping outside from Bangor Maine by way of Washington and Chicago who was deciding on whether to stay or move on. The outreach teams had tried to work with him in his first three weeks in Denver which is more than happens in most cities. There also seems to be a growing number of people migrating to Denver because of the recreational marijuana, which is a far more expensive of a habit than cigarettes. Housing is extremely expensive with supply not matching demand. They have far fewer abandoned properties when compared to most Midwestern cities, but they do exist.
Denver has many more laws on the books restricting homeless people and a pretty strict panhandling law. They do have a pretty amazing healthcare for the homeless operation with five clinics, including a brand new clinic attached to their permanent supportive housing project with dental services and a complete pharmacy. I was impressed with the level of care delivered to homeless people with an attempt to make the healthcare for the homeless clinics a medical home for low income people. They screen people who come in for mental health issues while they are assessing their physical health needs. People do not have to make appointments somewhere else and then face other challenges such as timing and transportation. The new Denver health care for the homeless clinic has a huge and respectful waiting area and a seamless process to apply for housing once they have sought healthcare assistance.
In Cleveland, most of the services are built around the shelters and even with Coordinated intake those staying at shelter are easiest to find and usually get access before those waiting on the streets. In Denver, the system seems to be centered around health care as the first point of contact for most. Those without housing seem to look healthier than I have seen in the Midwest or the East Coast. I don’t know if this is from the amount of walking necessary in western cities or the number of farm and domestic workers among the homeless population. Transportation is much more accessible in Denver when compared to Cleveland but not like DC, NYC or Boston.
Denver is a clean city, but about three times the number of people sleeping outside compared to Cleveland. There are no where near the numbers of people living outside as Washington DC, San Francisco or Boston. There were a number of grassroots organizations helping to provide a voice to those living in shelters or on the streets. There was not a real advocacy Coalition focused on the needs of homeless people and providing input to government or the social service community. This is not unusual for a capital city where advocacy groups get overshadowed by the State Coalitions and all the money and resources goes to state efforts. There is not the tradition to organizing in union cities like Cleveland, Philadelphia and Chicago. So, there is not a strong tenant association or commitment to organizing low income residents of the city.
They are making progress and have built large numbers of affordable housing units reserved for homeless people. They have permanent supportive housing for families which most cities have not found the ability to fund. They are working on funding a law enforcement diversion program which is supposed to save the city money over incarceration. Finally, there are horror movie scary Mimes performing in Downtown Denver, which is unsettling, but at least they are not dressed as clowns.
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