Aurora board members weigh dueling ideas as they consider steps to revamp the city’s homelessness program after trips to Texas, where they explored models to lessen this social misfortune plaguing the Denver metro.
Metro Denver is struggling to tackle homelessness, which jumped 12.8% — from 6,104 to 6,888 — between January 2020 and January of this year. Local authorities have devoted significant resources to tackling homelessness in recent years.
Council members, who have also sought strategies closer to home, such as Colorado Springs, differ in their approach. Some prefer a ‘housing first’ model, while others prefer ‘treatment first’. The city could presumably adopt a strategy that borrows from both models to create something specifically for Aurora
The trips began last month with council members Juan Marcano, Alison Coombs and Mayor Mike Coffman, along with other representatives from the Denver metro area, visiting Houston to hear from her city’s leaders about the ” housing first”. Houston’s success has garnered national attention that its leaders believe could serve as a national model for addressing homelessness.
The Houston model provides people with permanent supportive housing that combines housing and social services. Under this approach, resources such as housing vouchers are combined with support services tailored to the needs of the individual.
Housing or treatment first?
Council member Dustin Zvonek, a critic of Housing First models, helped organize a trip to San Antonio, keen to learn more about alternative approaches, including ‘treatment first’, like the Haven for Hope in Texas City, a campus that provides emergency shelter, transitional housing, case management services, and serves as a hub for many social services – from addiction treatment providers to training professional.
City officials’ impressions of their visits have already begun to form the basis of arguments that will likely play out over the next few weeks and potentially shape the contours of Aurora’s next homelessness policy, which some are describing as a patchwork system that fails to address the underlying causes of social unhappiness. Council members expressed both their attraction — and their aversion — to what they encountered in Texas. Their ultimate challenge is to craft a policy that works for Aurora, taking into account the socioeconomic and political differences between one of Denver’s largest metro cities and the two cities in Texas.
Zvonek, for one, doesn’t like the fact that the Haven for Hope campus has transitional housing right next to an emergency shelter. He said that means homeless families could live near known sex offenders or people who are clearly addicted to substances.
“Emergency shelter is very raw,” Zvonek said.
Zvonek thinks “housing first” approaches work for a small percentage of homeless people – those who are truly unable to care for themselves. For most people, however, that is not the case, he argued.
Zvonek is in favor of people who receive supportive housing who are also struggling with addiction receiving treatment. Providing them with housing without this condition does not “change their condition”, he argued.
“You got them off the streets, but they’re not on the road to self-sufficiency,” he said.
It could take someone three months, 18 months or two years to move from emergency shelter to permanent accommodation, he said, adding that each individual’s progress would come at a different pace.
“I don’t think there’s anything human about allowing someone who could become self-sufficient not to,” he said.
Zvonek is preparing a presentation for city council on his vision for ending homelessness. He doesn’t want to replicate exactly any of the approaches the council has been studying, he said.
“We should seek to build our own model,” he said.
Zvonek sees a comprehensive approach that includes the city’s camping ban, emergency shelter, transitional housing available with conditions, such as treatment requirements, and a navigation center with services, including mental health and addictions recovery services or vocational training.
Emergency shelter is needed with a camping ban in place, Zvonek said, adding it’s a way to get people to accept city services.
The council member hopes Aurora lawmakers will approve a resolution before the end of the year directing city leadership to develop a new homelessness prevention model.
“I believe that in the coming months we will define a strategy, a comprehensive strategy,” Zvonek said.
Incentive or no incentive?
Mayor Pro Tem Francoise Bergan, who visited Springs Rescue Mission in Colorado Springs before joining the delegation in San Antonio, doesn’t believe “housing first” models work as well as advocates.
She favors strategies that incentivize service uptake, which she says is what she found in Colorado Springs.
“What I liked about their model is that they kind of built in incentives to get people to move up the ladder, in terms of services,” she said.
Someone can come into the facility for a hot meal, but are incentivized to access other services with rewards, such as additional menu options or a personal locker, she said. People who reach certain milestones can get permanent, supportive housing, she said.
Bergan didn’t walk away from her visit to San Antonio fully convinced of the city’s strategies because, she said, Haven for Hope doesn’t believe in inducements. She also dislikes the idea of services without requirements, noting an example, in which a person had received housing services for 18 months at Haven for Hope but was not required to work.
“Intrinsically, it’s actually a lot more compassionate, and for the person, (it) gives them pride and dignity,” she said.
Bergan found the court disturbing, she said. People were “tense” throughout the section and clearly intoxicated with substances, she said. She saw a person with a bloody eye, and later when another man started screaming loudly, no one came to defuse the situation, she said.
San Antonio “might as well have had them without shelter on the street,” she said, referring to people camping in the yard.
Marcano, on the other hand, left San Antonio generally impressed with the campus and the way the city has shaped it, calling the one-stop shop a strong partnership between city and area vendors.
There are pitfalls, he says.
Although the city offered land to Haven for Hope, the campus cost $100 million to build and about $25 million a year to operate, he said.
“While it’s impressive, it’s very expensive,” he said.
Like Zvonek and Bergan, Marcano doesn’t want to replicate the entrance courtyard space for an emergency shelter on the Haven for Hope campus. He found the open campground, fences, concrete design and “anti-homeless” seating elements unattractive, calling it “particularly odd”.
“It felt like a prison yard,” he said. “They recognize that architecture is hostile. The accommodations are quite inhumane.
Of the thousands that Haven for Hope serves each year, about 20% are return visitors, he noted. About 90% of Haven for Hope graduates are still housed after one year, he added, noting that the pass rate declines faster than Houston’s, falling to 80% at two years and 75% after three. years, and about 90% of Houston clients are still housed after two years.
Marcano said he believes any navigation centers created in the Denver metro area should emulate the consolidation of services from Haven for Hope. Navigation centers are not shelters, he said. Instead, he noted, they can provide bridging accommodation while people are connected to services and tenancy agreements are made for them.
Marcano, an enthusiastic supporter of Houston’s approach, wants Aurora to implement a model that prioritizes permanent supportive housing. He hopes Aurora will follow a regional “housing first” approach that relies on hubs in the metropolitan area to connect people to services and housing, he said.
He argued that “Housing First” is more fiscally responsible because it saves communities from excessive costs of managing homelessness instead of reducing it. Its main goals, he said, include efficient spending and a human approach to the difficult issue.
“I think Houston’s approach is that,” he said.
Funding and collaboration
With board members having visited Houston, San Antonio and Colorado Springs, Zvonek said “there were clear commonalities” in all the models.
“The most important thing being that you have a holistic approach,” he said.
Zvonek and Bergan said federal funds come with more strings attached and they prefer a system that relies on private funding, as opposed to government dollars. Federal funding may come with requirements to prioritize “housing first,” something council members don’t want to feel obligated to do.
Zvonek’s frustration with Aurora’s approach is that it’s a patchwork system, he said, rooted in funding for various nonprofits and emergency services, such than beds and meals, instead of addressing the causes of homelessness.
Zvonek and Bergan said a regional approach would be ideal, but they don’t think it’s necessary and Aurora can chart its own course.
Marcano is now working to persuade minds to take a regional approach and generate council support for ‘housing first’, he said. Homelessness is a regional problem, and Aurora can’t make a real difference in reducing it unless regional jurisdictions work together, he said.
Aurora officials plan to meet with the Denver City Council’s housing committee before the end of the year, which it hopes will boost the potential for regional collaboration.
“I think we can make small gains in our city, but we’ll never address this problem if we try to go it alone,” he said, “because it’s a regional problem.”