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Disrupting the homeless to jail pipeline in Denver

Approach couples affordable housing programs with substance use and mental health treatment
A row of tents line the corner of 14th Avenue and Logan Street in Denver after a nearby homeless encampment was removed on Oct. 6, 2020. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

The city of Denver embarked on a five-year experiment in 2016 to see if it could disrupt the city’s robust homeless to jail pipeline by providing permanent supportive housing, which couples housing with services such as substance use and mental health treatment.

The results?

A “remarkably successful initiative,” said Mary Cunningham, vice president of the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute, who helped conduct an independent evaluation of the program.

The social and economic policy research organization based in Washington, D.C., released its final report Tuesday, looking at housing stability rates, health outcomes and whether the initiatives decreased people’s interactions with the criminal justice system.

The independent evaluation, which was paid for by the city of Denver, found that within the three-year evaluation period 68% of people who were enrolled in the program remained in housing, 12% had died, and 1% had moved into other permanent housing, the report said.

The report noted the high mortality rate – 28 people – among those in supportive housing was in line with what was seen in a control group. People experiencing homelessness have an average life expectancy of around 56 years, almost 18 years below that of housed populations, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Other notable outcomes from the study included a 34% reduction in police contacts compared with the control group, a 40% decrease in arrests and emergency department visits and a 155% increase in primary and preventive care visits.

In 2014, the city estimated it spent $7 million a year to serve 250 people experiencing chronic homelessness who were frequently interacting with expensive emergency systems not designed to support their long-term needs, according to a Denver city government news release.

A total of 724 people experiencing chronic homelessness who had prior involvement with the criminal justice system were enrolled in the program, half of whom were provided with supportive housing through the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless or Mental Health Center of Denver. The remaining participants – referred to as the control group – received only the resources that were available in the community.

“Because these results are from our rigorous experimental evaluation we can be confident that any differences between these two groups are because of supportive housing,” Cunningham said during a panel discussion on Thursday, announcing the results of the study.

To fund the five-year program, Denver partnered with eight private investors that agreed to pay $8.6 million in upfront costs to house 250 people who had frequent interactions with the city’s jail system. The investors agreed to only get paid back if the program proved successful – an approach referred to as a social impact bond initiative.

Given the program’s success, the city will pay $9.6 million back to investors, representing a $1 million return in investment, according to the study. About $4.5 million is for costs saved on housing stability and $5.1 million for the reduced number of jail stays. The Denver SIB was one of the first supportive housing programs funded through a social impact bond model, according to the study.

‘Greatest thing that’s happened in my life’

Walter Boyd, a 54-year-old Lakewood resident who obtained supportive housing through the program, said it gave him an opportunity to get his life back on track. Really, it saved his life, he said.

After leaving a bad marriage, he found himself homeless in 2020 in the middle of the pandemic and stayed at the emergency men’s shelter at the National Western Stock Show for four months. A few weeks before the shelter was scheduled to close, he got stopped by a staff member.

“I was scared because I was a little late, but they said they had a message for me from the coalition,” he said. The message was from the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, saying it had found him temporary housing at a hotel. He stayed there for two months then moved into permanent supportive housing last October in Lakewood.

“It’s a beautiful suburb, I can’t even believe I’m still here,” he said. “I’ve been here almost a year. Sometimes, I feel like I got to pinch myself.”

He said he was able to get medical treatment for his depression and scoliosis and get help finding employment. He said he’s now working with Denver Health as a consultant, helping to conduct a survey on homelessness. The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless also provided him emotional support when his mother died last year.

“It really was a hard time,” he said. “If I was still on the street, I would have never, never been able to get on my feet.”

He added, “So my case managers were able to talk to me and refer me to different programs.”

He wants every person living on the streets to be able to access the supportive housing program.

“I just pray that it continues,” Boyd said. “It’s the greatest thing that’s happened in my life.”

Need drastically outpaces availability

Though the program proved to be a success for those who participated, the need for supportive housing in Denver and across the country far outpaces its availability.

According to the report, unsheltered homelessness in Denver has increased by 25% since 2017, from 3,336 people to 4,171 in 2020. The estimate is based on annual point in time surveys, which are considered an undercount because the counts occur on a single night in the dead of winter and only accounts for people willing to be interviewed.

John Parvensky, president and chief executive officer for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, said during the panel discussion that the report reinforces what housing and homelessness providers have known for 20 years.

“The housing first (approach) works, that supportive housing with wraparound services works, and that integrated health care provided and linked to housing works,” he said.

Parvensky wants the city to invest more in building supportive housing, as well as increase rental assistance and access to health care and mental health treatment.

“We need to expand programs like this by eight times just to meet the needs of the people who are homeless tonight,” he said.

Cunningham said in order for Denver to scale the supportive housing program to serve 1,200 people experiencing chronic homelessness (which is still well below the need), it would cost between $14.6 million and $18.7 million per year. But she added the efforts would ultimately save the city $8.3 million in emergency services such as hospital and jail stays.

Opportunity to change approach

Vinnie Cervantes, director of Denver Alliance for Street Health Response, said he would like to see Denver reallocate public safety money – which accounts for 42% of the city’s $1.3 billion municipal budget, according to The Denver Post – and direct it toward housing and mental health services.

Cervantes’ organization helped pave the way for Denver’s STAR program, which sends mental health professionals to crisis calls instead of law enforcement officers.

For Cervantes, the outcomes outlined in the Urban Institute report directly contradict the city’s current approach to homelessness, which includes conducting continuous homeless sweeps of encampments that are in violation of the city’s urban camping ban.

“The city is doubling down on that approach with this new SET program, the Street Enforcement Team,” he said.

Denver city officials announced on Tuesday their plans to establish a Street Enforcement Team to issue citations to residents for disobeying city ordinances, including the urban camping ban. The team will include six unarmed civilians.

“This is going to only increase the barriers that people face to get out of the situation they are in,” Cervantes said. “We’re not going to enforce our way out of these crises.”

“The city of Denver has done everything to prove that they’re gonna double down on those efforts of criminalization and harm and compounding trauma and I think that this report, hopefully, will at least be a way for them to reverse course,” he said.

For more stories by Colorado Newsline, visit coloradonewsline.com.