Important now: Shift the paradigm for sheltering. It’s should be a means to a rehousing end and not the end itself.
When the coronavirus (COVID-19) struck causing Denver’s homeless population to multiply, the city rallied to implement a solution. Within a matter of weeks, a system was set up to augment an existing sheltering program which coincidentally had been undergoing a remodel. Now some aspects of the new program are being put to test sooner than planned.
Auxiliary shelters have been organized at the National Western Complex and Denver Coliseum, normally used for entertainment purposes, adding more than 1,800 new beds for the homeless, including 800 for two distinct groups: those testing positive for COVID-19 and those with underlying health issues.
What is different about Denver’s new sheltering approach is that the goal is not to simply provide extra emergency beds, it is to execute a coordinated process intended to put the homeless on a “tailored path” to rehousing. This was a significant mindset shift and critical to Denver’s recently implemented Three-Year Shelter Expansion plan, many parts of which were accelerated by COVID-19.
A 2019 Point in Time Report issued by the Denver Homeless Initiative showed 5,755 people experiencing homelessness. In its attempt to make headway with its homeless crisis before the pandemic, the city embraced the idea that “sheltering becomes a means to a rehousing end and not the end itself. This is a fundamental paradigm shift that creates a shared mission and responsibility for both the providers and clients to achieve rehousing, not just provide a shelter bed,” according to Mandy Chapman Semple, an independent consultant who helped Denver advance its approach to sheltering.
The pandemic also forced the implementation of a “24/7” plan, which provides all-day and -night sheltering, as well as enhanced services such as balanced meals, medical screenings and mental health support. The feedback has been strong, according to Laura Brudzynski, deputy director of operations for the Department of Housing Stability (HOST).
“People are expressing that they feel more rested, have more robust meals and there is lower anxiety because they know they have a bed to come back to,” she says.
She adds that consistency has been a stabilizing support for people sheltering in the program.
“There is really a strong foundation set with the 24/7 facilities, and we look forward to supporting it as we move forward even beyond” COVID-19, she says.
To make it all come together, Brudzynski coordinated closely with several other city departments; she also teamed up with community partners devoted to the cause, including the Homeless Leadership Council, which is made up of the largest service and shelter providers within the city of Denver.
“Our partners at the Homeless Leadership Council and others really stepped up to fill this gap. We had the need for more personnel and more support to be able to execute on the 24/7 shelter strategy. It was really city staff and our service providers who stood up to fill that gap,” she explains.
The new sheltering initiative is an ancillary yet fitting piece of a larger five-year plan called Housing an Inclusive Denver (HID). The comprehensive plan, adopted in 2018, addresses housing needs along a “housing continuum,” from the homeless to low-income earners seeking homeownership. The plan allocates specific funding amounts to fit the needs of each income group.
“Guiding our investment along the housing continuum was key and builds above and beyond our historic plans,” says Brudzynski. “This prioritized our investments and helped align our resources along the housing continuum.”
The HID plan goes far beyond how the city has handled the situation in the past. By 2023, the city expects to serve at least 30,000 households with a variety of programs aimed at stabilizing residents at risk of becoming homeless – all the way to those seeking to become homeowners.
As a testament to the importance of Housing an Inclusive Denver, Brudzynski’s department, HOST, came into being this year. Comprised of the best parts of previous departments, HOST is tasked with rolling out various planning initiatives and is now considered a core city service.
“We are really excited to be launched formally as a new agency and to be bringing together the staff, resources and expertise across the housing continuum,” says Brudzynski. “We will be working in 2020 to create a new strategic plan and vision across the entire continuum that incorporates and builds upon Housing an Inclusive Denver.”
Because the city does not own or operate affordable housing units, HOST relies heavily on for-profit, nonprofit and quasi-governmental organizations to carry out its multi-faceted mission.
For example, when 43-year-old Denver resident Monica Gallegos was out of work for two months because of a medical emergency, she reached out to Brothers Redevelopment for help. The nonprofit is tasked with carrying out a short-term assistance program for residents at risk of losing their homes over lack of payment for rent or utility bills. The program covered Gallegos’ $1,165 rent for one month.
Another organization, Sunshine Home Colorado, contracted with HOST to match homeowners with home seekers with the intent to share housing. For example, for homeowners wanting to “age in place,” home sharing allows the owner to generate income or trade rent for assistance with basic household chores – and at the same time provides an affordable place to live. The nonprofit reports a long list of successful matches.
A key feature of HID was doubling the city’s Housing Fund from $15 million to $30 million in 2018 (see revenue sources below). Additionally, with dedicated revenues from a property tax, the city was able to issue $130 million in bonds, which will help accelerate the goals of the plan over the next five years.
2020 Dedicated Housing Funds (Planned)
“We recognized we have a huge housing need now, so this brought forward what would otherwise be a 10- to 15-year pipeline for the development and preservation of affordable units,” says Brudzynski.
In this year alone, the city expects to bring 1,030 new low-income units to the market and preserving 100 existing ones. Additionally, a total of 9,710 households will have renewed access to affordable homes or benefit from investments in housing stabilization.
Historically, the majority of projects went to units affordable to residents earning approximately 60 percent of Area Median Income (AMI). However, that has shifted, according to the HID’s Action Plan for 2020. Now the following allocations will be made:
HID is the culmination of feedback from more than 1,500 residents of communities across the city, guidance from national housing experts and inclusion of successful aspects of previous city programs.
“This plan, and its accompanying annual action plans, are meant to be flexible, living documents that serve to guide us through future changes to Denver’s housing market,” according to Mayor Michael B. Hancock.
“Our neighborhoods have defined us for generations,” Hancock says. “Now, our greatest challenge as a city is how we invest in our neighborhoods without sacrificing the cultural and historic fabric that makes them unique.”
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