No other issue has captured headlines and tugged at heartstrings like people experiencing homelessness. It’s a topic that is dominating local elections across the state and driving candidates to answer questions about their plans to address it.
How we respond to the crisis matters. To transform the system, we must first have a clear sense of resources being spent so we can make the best decisions as a community as to how those resources are allocated.
In other words, it starts with transparency around the facts and data. In 2021, Common Sense Institute (CSI) released The Economic Footprint of Homelessness in Metro Denver. The study provided a clear understanding of the size and scope of homelessness and the economic footprint — in other words, what resources Colorado is investing, where they are spent, and how. Since then, CSI has issued new studies providing updates and best practices.
Next month, Coloradans will cast ballots in municipal elections in some of our most populated cities. To inform the debate around homelessness as well as other top-tier issues facing Colorado such as housing and crime, CSI produced reports in Denver, Grand Junction and Colorado Springs. This fall, CSI will produce a second series of reports to inform the elections in Pueblo, Fort Collins and Aurora.
The city of Denver is the focal point of Colorado’s homelessness challenges. The state’s biggest population center also contains its highest concentration of people experiencing homelessness — almost 70% of the Denver metro area’s homeless despite less than a third of its total population. Denver receives the metro area’s greatest share of municipal and charitable homelessness spending, both in absolute and per-person terms.
Some of CSI’s findings:
Over the last five years, Denver’s population of people experiencing homelessness has risen by almost 44%. Even more breathtaking, the rate of growth is 12 times faster than the city’s total population growth between 2016 and 2021.
CSI estimates that the budgeted homelessness spending in Denver will grow from $393.2 million in 2021 to $545.3 million in 2023, a 38.7% increase. The three-year expenditure totals $1.45 billion.
The estimated 2023 spending per person experiencing homelessness or in permanent supportive housing (according to a range of daily count estimates) in Denver is expected to be between $37,309 and $73,450.
Further, personnel exclusively dedicated to homelessness within Denver’s Department of Housing Stability more than doubled from 2021 to 2023.
The system of resources addressing people experiencing homelessness is at a critical point. Though funding has increased significantly in recent years, much of the increase is from one-time federal, state, and municipal spending that will decline over the next few budget cycles.
As spending on homelessness has increased annually, the unsheltered and chronically homeless populations have also increased. Housing affordability in Colorado has plummeted, overall price levels are at record highs due to inflation, and the state’s housing inventory is dangerously low. This is a troubling precursor for sustained elevated levels of newly homeless.
These facts leave a list of questions for candidates and policymakers to answer: What is the city getting for these dollars? Why is homelessness going up and not going down? How will the city invest in this money and avoid the pending fiscal cliff when federal stimulus dollars dry up?
Grand Junction is facing an increase of people experiencing homelessness that is overwhelming its capacity to provide services and move people off the streets. In fact, it stands out among Colorado’s largest cities — as a percentage of the city’s total population, its homeless population is 14% higher than Denver’s, 75% higher than Boulder’s, and 165% higher than Colorado Springs’.
Although events associated with the COVID-19 pandemic are partially to blame, Grand Junction’s unsheltered rate of over 60% and chronic homelessness level of nearly 70% are wholly unprecedented across the recent histories of Colorado’s largest cities. City officials have scrambled to fund solutions such as leveraging $9 million of federal relief money. That might not be enough to control the existing problem or mitigate the long-term harm.
Key findings in CSI’s analysis:
Though Grand Junction’s homeless population has only grown by 6.8% since 2017, it’s grown by almost 43% since 2019. This outpaces its total population growth by nearly 600%.
In 2019, about a quarter of Grand Junction’s homeless were unsheltered. Just two years later, that figure grew to 60.4%.
Grand Junction’s chronically homeless population nearly tripled, from 134 to 359, between the last two complete PIT (point-in-time) counts.
Local policy innovations, good governance and strong public-private partnerships have led to a promising trend in Colorado Springs. Over the last five years, the number of people experiencing homelessness has decreased in Colorado Springs.
Among the key findings:
Colorado Springs’ homeless population is 10% lower than it was in 2019.
In 2018, almost a third of Colorado Springs’ homeless were unsheltered. Since then, the unsheltered rate has fallen by almost 43%.
Much of Colorado Springs’ success can be traced to the $18 million expansion of the Springs Rescue Mission, a partnership between private organizations and the city government. The expansion grew the campus to over 14 square acres, improved its services and security, and increased its shelter capacity from just 37 to 450.
The path forward
Instead of feeling hopeless, there is a path forward. Transparency and sound data are needed to efficiently deploy finite resources. Given that most homeless resolution strategies focus on targeting specific groups of people, resources could be dedicated to each of these populations and should be reported similarly.
The aim is to set a baseline by which we can measure success and realize best practices in Colorado and around the country. The good news is facts are driving conversations, pushing candidates and policymakers to introduce new initiatives, and sparking thoughtful debate about solutions.
This is not a Denver problem, a Colorado Springs problem, or a Grand Junction problem. This is a Colorado problem. We should make this a priority and be at the table.
Kelly Caufield is the executive director of Common Sense Institute.