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Build More: Denver’s Road Home Units Ahead of Pace

Tue June 30, 2009 - West Edition
Michael Booth -The Denver Post

DENVER (AP) Four years and tens of millions of dollars into Mayor John Hickenlooper’s signature 10-year plan to end homelessness in Denver, organizers have created more than 1,500 housing units and settled on a philosophy:

Build more.

The opening of 66 new units for the homeless at the historic Aromor on Capitol Hill on May 18, combined with hundreds more apartments coming online this year, puts Denver’s Road Home well ahead of a pace to find 3,000 units in a decade. The number of chronic homeless on the streets is down. Panhandling, detox visits and jail intakes have been cut sharply, and cities from Fort Collins to Sacramento, Calif., have adopted similarly ambitious goals.

The new challenge for homeless advocates is to translate enthusiasm for bricks and mortar into long-term aid for job skills, drug treatment and other services that keep new apartment doors from becoming revolving doors.

And while studies can now point to specific cost savings in housing the homeless, officials must persuade a tangle of government agencies to reinvest those savings in redoubled efforts for the homeless.

“People say, you’re saving federal money, or Medicaid money,” not city money, Hickenlooper said. “I don’t care. It’s all our money. The very fact we are demonstrating savings per person, per year, people don’t realize that.”

Larry “Joe” Robinson hopes to contribute to those savings after moving into the Aromor. He’ll be contributing part of his Supplemental Security Income toward rent, in a small but fresh dorm-style room with a new kitchen. Come fall, he’ll be at Emily Griffith Opportunity School for professional office courses.

“My main thing is getting trained. I don’t need to be on SSI forever,” said Robinson, who was on the streets in Oklahoma and Denver after a bone disease precluded his construction work. “I’m more than capable of going back into the work force.”

The Aromor and six other projects coming online this spring and summer are a landmark for the 10-year program.

Even if the deep recession boosts the homeless-snapshot census due in June, officials said, they can now prove to doubters that building a housing unit is cheaper for taxpayers than a life on the street.

“The most important thing we’ve learned, is, A: It’s possible to succeed at this; and B: To do so makes economic sense,” said Hickenlooper, summing up the first four years of Denver’s Road Home.

“These programs are, in fact, cost beneficial,” said Dennis Culhane, a social policy professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied programs across the nation, including Denver’s.

Detox admissions for homeless substance abusers fall 84 percent when they are targeted for housing and services, said Jamie Van Leeuwen, a Denver Department of Human Services official who is manager of Denver’s Road Home. Those homeless were each averaging 70 detox admissions a year, which means the savings are substantial. Jail intakes of Denver homeless, meanwhile, are down 22 percent over the past two years.

The chore for homeless advocates becomes more difficult, however, as they try to transform support for building projects into ongoing support of expensive services, such as job training and drug treatment. Agencies and private donors like bricks and mortar but need more persuasion for long-term aid.

“It’s proven the hardest part of this program, everywhere you go,” Culhane said. “We’re going to have to come up with a cheaper model” to serve people “if we’re going to keep doing this,” he said.

Housing advocates argue building units is cost-effective for taxpayers even if the formerly homeless simply move off the street and do not find jobs. The cost of caring for a truly homeless person runs more than $40,000 a year in hospital, detox, jail and other costs, while the costs in permanent housing and support services go down below $17,000, studies have shown.

Still, sociologists want more proof about the usefulness of intense job training and coordinated services. Research is “plainly weak,” concluded a 2007 report to the National Symposium on Homelessness Research.

Hickenlooper and others acknowledge a potential public relations blip in Denver if an upcoming “snapshot” census reveals a surge in shelter demand because of the recession. Colorado Coalition for the Homeless president John Parvensky has warned of a 20 percent increase in shelter needs in the past six months.

“People get confused, they still see people on the street corners holding signs,” Parvensky said. “But I think they see we are solving it on a daily basis.”

The good news is that despite any short-term surge, the 10-year plan is constructing “units that are not going away,” said Jennifer Erixon of Mercy Housing Colorado.

Mercy bought the vacant Aromor from the Denver Housing Authority and added Section 8 vouchers, private donations and its own funding to create “supportive housing.” That means a 24-hour desk clerk for security and continuity, onsite offices for case managers and a computer lab. Neighbors suggested a smoking lounge inside the building so that smokers wouldn’t loiter on Grant Street and attract the wrong crowd.

Mercy has built supportive housing in other states, Erixon said, but it could not have happened in Denver without the Road Home framework and Hickenlooper’s constant lobbying for private money. The Aromor relied on a $1.5 million donation from Quiznos founder Richard Schaden and family, including $500,000 to support the ongoing services.

Homeless advocates say they cannot pause long to appreciate the seven projects and 319 housing units opening by fall. Most of those were begun a couple of years ago before the recession bit deep into public budgets and private endowments. Officials are intent on landing metro Denver a share of $1.5 billion in federal stimulus money set aside for similar housing and support projects.

“In this economy, there’s never been a better time to have a plan,” Van Leeuwen said. “We know how to use that stimulus money. We wrote this plan four years ago to be shovel-ready.”

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