Last November, while staying overnight in Denver for a health equity conference, I realized I had forgotten to pack a toothbrush, so I ran to Walmart to get one. The errand would have been unremarkable but for the fact that, on my way out, I met an elderly woman and her daughter in her 30s, who had Down syndrome. They were standing at the door with all of their belongings in a shopping cart. The elderly woman asked the friend who was with me if she could use his phone.
Naturally, a conversation started, and we quickly discovered that this woman and her daughter had been living on and off the street for years. They were stuck in a cycle of using their Supplemental Security Income to pay an exorbitant amount of money monthly to rent a hotel room. They’d usually make it to the last week of the month before their money ran out and they had to find other ways to survive. They reasoned that living this way helped offset their food budget, as they could rely on the hotel’s morning buffet breakfast.
Shelters are often full in the winter, and as two women alone on the street, they felt it important to choose areas of Denver that supported their safety through the night. Often in this situation, they would stand waiting at the doorway of Walmart till morning — or for as long as they could.
Feeling helpless, my friend and I did what we could and connected them with people we know in the area, but it just didn’t seem fair that these women were perpetually bankrupt, paying more monthly than a one-bedroom apartment would cost, and still were homeless.
A new year — and decade — has dawned, bringing with it hope and possibility. Our city, like Denver, is undergoing transformation: a growing population, expansive building projects, and the prospect of passenger rail along I-25. But this growth comes with limited affordable housing options, growing economic disparity and an influx of newcomers who are rapidly changing neighborhoods by gobbling up median-income housing. It’s a real problem in need of real solutions for Colorado Springs and beyond.
A 2018 report from regional nonprofits Partners in Housing, Catholic Charities of Central Colorado and Family Promise of Colorado Springs, which compiled national and regional data, says homeless families comprise 35 percent of all homeless people nationwide; this includes 2.5 million children. An estimated two-thirds of these vulnerable families reside in just four states, Colorado among them, along with California, Florida and Oregon.
Point in Time counts, which tally the number of unsheltered individuals on one given night, usually underestimate the problem, but the local 2019 Point in Time survey found 1,562 homeless people in El Paso County. Although tiny-home villages, which have been proposed by many locally, may be one solution, they are not the only solution. We need to shift our focus from “managing” homelessness to ending it.
Affordable housing, coupled with supportive behavioral and mental health services, substance abuse treatment, trauma-informed care, employment and education, food, child care and transportation are all foundational to public safety and security. We need to build coalitions across sectors — coalitions that imagine a racially diverse Colorado Springs that provides economic opportunity and inclusive housing solutions to its citizens.
Programs like Housing First, which provide housing to people experiencing homelessness so they are better equipped to handle mental health and substance abuse issues, are working throughout the world. Bloomberg even reported in 2019 that homelessness in Finland has fallen 40 percent over the last decade, thanks to this model.
All things are possible. Do we have the will?