Community Cross-Training compares Denver, Arkansas Valley

At the Community Cross-Training event held on March 9, Terrell Curtis was the featured speaker, representing Denver's The Delores Project, an organization offering shelter and services for homeless women. Curtis finds her career extraordinarily rewarding - "I just fell in love" with the work of helping people without "fallback" options. The best "solutions are evidence-based" with "a proven track record in other cities."

The services the homeless can need are more extensive than housing alone. The Gathering Place offers not only food, for example, but also wifi and child care - things that can be critical for a job search. Personalized attention is a critical aspect of improving the situation of the homeless; the "American value of efficiency" is not necessarily ideal. For example, "kids... experiencing homelessness take on a lot more of the adult roles than we would like," often translating, providing child care, etc. Having the chance to play can be a basic need; it's "important... that they have a safe place to just be kids."

Homeless children are, unfortunately, not uncommon. "Slightly more than half of all homelessness affects people in families" that include minors. Among lone adults, a group representing "slightly less than half of all homelessness," two-thirds are men and the remaining third women. While specific quantity numbers for counties like Otero and Prowers can be hard to find, these patterns remain "pretty proportional wherever you are," according to Curtis.

In all places, "you can be assured its always an undercount" when numbers of the homeless are published. There are many locations besides the open street where people without reliable address may end up. Couch surfing, for example, occurs when a series of borrowed or temporary quarters takes the place of a more permanent arrangement. Living out of a car is common; Walmart parking lots are well known as a place where the homeless in autos often live.

In addition, homeless women are often motivated to conceal their status to avoid being "vulnerable looking." The lack of basic opportunities for hygiene can negatively impact self-esteem; Curtis notes that the large mirror at the Denver shelter is heavily used. People want to look their best to feel good about themselves, regardless of poverty.

The audience at Community Cross-Training discussed local observations of homelessness in the lower Arkansas Valley. Walmart locations, truck stops, and parking lots in La Junta and Lamar are where the 'seen' homeless may be found, but the 'unseen' - those in substandard or temporary housing, for example - are harder to quantify.

Further local impact comes from the presence of U.S. Highway 50, a transcontinental route stretching over 3,000 miles and permitting - unlike the Eisenhower Interstate System - use by pedestrians. The dividing line between 'roughing it' during travel and outright homelessness can be thin. The tendency of communities both rural and urban to 'solve' homelessness issues by issuing a bus ticket out of town contributes to this problem.

Two groups are disproportionately common among the homeless, as compared to their share of the general population. Military veterans - very often, subject to trauma from their experiences - represent "about 10% of all adults experiencing homelessness" - a group that is 90% male, but "the women are growing" as a section.

The second group are unaccompanied youth, who represent "about 11% of all people experiencing homelessness." Some of these individuals are ejected from their families - as a result of bigotry against LGBTQ, for example, or as a result of financial desperation. These experiences of rejection have immediate physical results, but also cause trauma, something which can have lifelong effects.

Curtis referenced a recent study on the psychology of trauma linking such harm to mental illness; "we're recognizing trauma a lot in our work these days." Individuals who have experienced extreme mistreatment often face severe challenges in readjusting to life even after the abuse has ended.

As an extreme example, Denver is a hub of human trafficking, and Curtis warned that such problems are not limited to the city. The home-insecure may be exploited for their labor in domestic urban situations, but also in farming and rural situations where places to live may be limited. "I don't really want to put this thought into your heads, but you get a lot of trucks through your community."

Curtis avoided emphasizing only the bad, however, noting that enduring through such adversity can also bring out people's strengths. "Folks who experience homelessness are the most resilient I've ever met - they are the most resourceful I've ever met." She described a resident at the shelter who was also a student at Littleton (40 minutes apart by car), who bused back and forth and worked on her homework every night - she was determined to graduate, and did.

Nor is it necessary for trauma or unusual circumstances to leave a person homeless. According to national housing data Curtis cited, "there is no place in the country any of us can afford to live if we're making minimum wage" - at least, not if 'affordable' is defined as a manageable amount of a household budget to allow for handling life's inevitable, occasional emergencies.

Health adversity is a strong correlate with homelessness, and sometimes also its cause. "People in shelters are twice as likely to have a disability," for example. Domestic abuse is another danger; 16% of the homeless population are victims of it, and of that portion, 88% have endured "a lot" or sustained abuse.

"Chronic health conditions worsen in poverty" for many reasons, including vulnerability to violence but also on account of limited choices. While health authorities endorse a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, for example, Curtis noted how these are more difficult to obtain for the poor, because of availability as well as price. So-called 'food deserts' can occur in both rural and urban areas, anywhere people live far from grocery stores.

A fifth of the overall homeless population deal with "serious mental illness." A much larger proportion face moderate conditions that still cause hardship. Trauma "literally requires your brain, and you end up in a permanent fight or flight state," said Curtis. Veterans of combat experiences are very often affected by this condition, as are abuse victims.

"We do a triage assessment the minute someone walks in the door" of the shelter, and this includes checking whether a detox need exists; 16% of the homeless population have the affliction of chronic substance abuse - fewer than is often stereotyped. "We're not dry... but we're not wet" - they shelter won't refuse services to drug users, alcoholics, etc., but doesn't permit use on site.

Curtis noted that such an inclusive policy is basic to the mission of the shelter. "We want them to have a relationship [with us]... we get to be that community of support - pretty close to unconditional love." She described having recently been told by a shelter user that it was "the first place they felt confident to sleep on their stomach" in a long time, as a place the person felt they did not have to be ready to react to sudden violence.

Despite public perceptions, while substance abuse correlates with homelessness, the former social problem does not explain the frequency of the latter. People living in secure home situations may still be affected by severe substance abuse, and people rendered homeless may not have developed any substance-related problems prior to losing their homes.

In particular, research indicates that the legal status of marijuana in Colorado is not the driver of homelessness in the state. The 2017 Pueblo County Cannabis Impact Study, conducted by CSU - Pueblo, found that while "cannabis refugees" - those crossing state lines for access to medicine, including veterans looking relief from PTSD - "have a real but unknown impact on homeless statistics in Pueblo," overall market data shows "legal cannabis has neither reduced, nor increased, existing poverty disparities between Pueblo and more affluent Colorado counties."

The CSU study suggested that "Colorado’s economic boom may itself be a partial cause for increases in homelessness: Front Range wages have not kept pace with the cost of living and hourly wage earners may generally have a difficult time affording housing." Those unable to afford Denver may end up in Colorado Springs; those out-priced in Springs may end up in Pueblo - and perhaps those unable to afford rents in even smaller cities may end up in rural areas.

Locally-high utility costs were a crucial factor in causing homelessness, with much greater impact than substances in general. "Instead, disconnected utilities reportedly from more than 7,000 Pueblo homes in 2016 has been cited as the largest single cause of homelessness in Pueblo," said the report, citing a County Commissioner investigation into Black Hills Energy that called it the number one reason for family homelessness in that city.

At The Delores Project, "we don't put an arbitrary time limit" on the number of visits or how often an individual can use the shelter. Still, they are physically limited to some 50 to 60 sixty people at a time; as a result, "we say 'no' every night; we have a waiting list every night." There are many areas in America with no shelters, and few or none where the shelters that exist can handle the demand.

This is among the reasons why Curtis believes in the Housing First model of addressing the issue, a policy followed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). This policy "provides a unit of housing 'first'" for the homeless - in other words, without waiting on the subject's ability to provide contributing funds. Research on this model "that's been around for maybe 50 years" indicates that it "can save a community $23,000 for each person housed;" even considering the services' costs, the savings (in health care, law enforcement, etc.) outstrip expenses significantly.

Curtis also referenced the cost of living - especially the apartment crunch in Denver - and asked her audience to consider how close regular working people are to becoming homeless if enough problems occur quickly enough. In such potential circumstances, the same respect people would want to be shown themselves is what those actually experiencing them wish for -  "that's my little advocacy piece - providing dignity" in housing, rather than judgment.

Access to services and places to work is critical in helping people to regain their stability and independence. The Delores Project offers shelter a "half mile southwest of the [Mile High] stadium" and is near Union Station, able to take advantage of Jefferson County's train route - "right in the main line." Despite  common assumptions, many of the homeless are employed; in the case of their shelter, Curtis noted that residents have used Denver's public transit system to commute "as far as DIA for work" [about 25 miles away].

Curtis also mentioned libraries as a critical resource for the homeless, offering a place to work and communicate with their support networks via the internet. As with transport, the shelter benefits from location; residents use the "library across the street from us" for these purposes and more. The shelter also offers social events, for networking as well as entertainment - "we play karaoke and bingo sometimes," for example.

Having such a prime spot for development is a huge advantage, and The Delores Project is capitalizing on it with construction intended to use the principles of dignity Curtis discussed. The planned Arroyo Village will be a partnership with Rocky Mountain Communities and feature both a traditional night shelter and a group of units for extended residence.

Arroyo Village will house 35 individuals and 95 low-income working families, in addition to the 50-60 shelter beds. Residents are limited to a threshold of 30% of area median income. The project budgets an estimated cost of $30 million.

Governmental support seems to account for only about half or less of the expected amount. On the state level, a Colorado Division of Housing (CDOH) grant offers $1 million, state tax credits offer another $3.9 million, and the Denver Housing Loan Fund is providing $1.3 million. Federally, the HUD 221(d)(4) multi-family loan program should supply $10.75 million, and support will also come from the Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC) program "started by Reagan in the '80s."

Overall operations are even more dependent on private support, receiving only about a tenth of funding from government sources. "We are currently the homeless homeless shelter" with construction ongoing, Curtis laughed, but had many images to show predicting how the result will look. The appearance goal is hospitality, not severity - "low-income housing doesn't have to be ugly."

In particular, psychology is an influence; Arroyo Village will incorporate "trauma-informed design -  I've actually become really fascinated by it," Curtis said. Examples of this include using "calm, earth colors" and "natural-looking and natural-feeling materials." The communal space inside will have "rocking chairs" and the landscaping outside will have a "water feature," like a fountain. "The windows are wall-to-wall; they're gorgeous," providing a strong contrast to conditions a person may have had to endure prior to coming to the shelter.

A part of the plan that the audience discussed as possibly a good idea in the Valley is the use of tiny unplumbed homes, in a village design that allows for centralized use of water "These are not the fancy ones you see on HGTV," said Curtis, "but it is a well built, safe building... about 120 square feet" and offering privacy for a resident family.

Seattle has a successful version of this plan that the Denver project designers have visited repeatedly. With a goal of empowerment, "the really unique thing about these is that they're self-governed" with a gate staffed by residents, under professionals' assistance. Locally, the design institute at Lamar Community College has helped, as has a Denver construction firm.

Colorado has only around 87 shelters across the state, and the lower Valley has no true overnight emergency shelters at all. Faced with a shortage of rental and affordable housing units, it also has few options for those seeking temporary shelter. The scale of approaches suited for a place like Denver may not work in La Junta or Lamar; however, the principles of looking to research and offering respect are the same.

Otero Junior College hosted the event, presented by Southeast Health Group and organized by Nancy King. The discussion included audience members from as far as Aurora, Fort Lyon, Lamar, and Baca County, and representing fields such as grant writing, health providing, probation monitoring, and social services.

The next Community Cross-Training program will feature Tom Hays, Training Coordinator for SAGE Youth Center, speaking on the topic of creating safe environments for victims of adverse childhood experiences. These will be all-day (8:30 a.m. - 4 p.m.) workshops with lunch provided, to be held on Friday, April 6 at Lamar Community College and on Friday, April 20 at Otero Junior College.

About The Delores Project

The Delores Project is named for Delores Big Boy, a Lakota woman who frequently lived on the streets of Denver. Her situation was complicated by health, developmental, and substance abuse issues, as well as physical and sexual violence.

Although Delores sought aid from various Denver agencies, sadly, she fell through the cracks in the system. Delores died while living on the streets June 8, 1999. In forming the shelter in 2000, we chose to honor her memory so that we could always continue our work with a commitment to ensuring safe shelter for every woman and support for those in transition.

The Delores Project was founded in 2000 and originally operated out of borrowed space provided by other organizations each year between October and April. In 2006, The Delores Project secured its current facility allowing the shelter to begin year-round operations with nearly double our original capacity. As a year-round shelter The Delores Project is able to enhance services, providing support for women in securing long-term housing and addressing the other myriad challenges they face. More information is at https://www.thedeloresproject.org/.

About Rocky Mountain Communities

Founded in 1992, Rocky Mountain Communities has been providing affordable housing to Colorado families for over 20 years. As a registered 501(c)3 non-profit, the mission of Rocky Mountain Communities is to develop, own, and manage affordable housing and provide support services to help individuals succeed in life. More information is at http://rockymountaincommunities.org/.

About Southeast Health Group

Southeast Health Group (SHG) is a private nonprofit corporation providing mental health, substance use disorder, primary care, physical therapy, peer, and wellness services to six rural and frontier Colorado counties – Baca, Bent, Crowley, Kiowa, Otero, and Prowers. These counties cover a total of 9,600 square miles with 46,727 people. More information is at https://www.southeasthealthgroup.org/.