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Homelessness in Englewood: No place to call home

Homeless population has seen growth in recent years, and a new coalition hopes to reverse course

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During a cleanup along the South Platte River in January, Englewood police counted 21 campsites with about 30 people living on its east banks. Some 25 truckloads of trash, human waste, syringes and needles were hauled out.

At a local food pantry, about 20 homeless individuals, most of them new faces, arrive each week seeking help.

Businesses along the Broadway corridor are increasingly complaining about homeless people loitering, sleeping on property or showing aggression towards passersby. One owner ended up in a physical altercation with a patron of a nearby homeless-resource center who wouldn’t move from her entrance.

And in the 12 months ending in March, the Englewood Public Library recorded more than 20 incidents involving mostly alcohol and some drugs. A library administrator didn’t directly connect them to the homeless, but said people with drug problems likely need a warm, dry place to use. Bloody tissues and needles, suggestive of drug injections, have been found in the men’s bathroom.

Although exact numbers are difficult to come by, police, business owners, city officials and organizations that work with the homeless say a growing homeless population is affecting parts of the fabric of life in Englewood.

The challenge has become so great that a community coalition called Change the Trend Network — composed of nonprofits, the Englewood Police Department and area churches — formed to find solutions to the complex social issue that a growing number of suburban areas are facing: How to respond with compassion and create programs that help move people out of homelessness while preserving the community’s safety and economic vitality.

Bart Sayyah, executive director at HOPE food pantry on South Broadway, said south metro-area homelessness was a problem even when he observed it as a volunteer for a homeless-resource center three decades ago.

“We have to decide whether we want to be compassionate,” he said, “or we just want to turn a blind eye to it and hope it becomes someone else’s problem.”

A complex web of reasons

Englewood, a city of about 35,000 residents, borders Denver on the north, Littleton on the south, Sheridan on the west and Cherry Hills Village on the east. The South Platte River winds along the city’s western edge. Its population boomed in the mid-1900s amid a need for new homes as veterans returned from World War II.

The former Cinderella City mall, near West Hampden Avenue and South Santa Fe Drive, was a main draw for Englewood in the 1970s. But competition led to a decline, and after a late-1990s demolition, the site was converted into the city’s Walmart, other retail and the buildings that house city-government offices and the Englewood Public Library.

The civic-center area also is a midpoint stop for the light-rail line and buses that run on South Broadway from downtown Denver to the outer suburbs.

More than half of Englewood’s households earn between $25,000 and $99,999, according to a 2018 city survey. The majority of residents are between 25 and 54 years old. The economy includes a multitude of small businesses and industrial companies, such as Stolle Machinery and Braemar Steel Buildings. After a post-2008 recession that left storefronts vacant throughout the city, the downtown area is reinventing itself — businesses from restaurants to a brewery to a yoga studio have opened in recent years. Farther south, a long trail of older businesses, small restaurants, motels and car dealerships line the gates leading toward the neighboring, newer suburbs of Highlands Ranch and Centennial.

To the north, advocates who help the homeless point to a pattern of homeless people moving to the suburbs from Denver, which has the largest concentration of shelters and other resources for the homeless in the metro area.

Although the data isn’t exact, voluntary surveys say homelessness decreased by about 13 percent since 2012 in the seven-county Denver metro area, which includes rural areas in counties such as Arapahoe and Adams, according to the annual point-in-time survey conducted by the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative. The survey counts how many homeless individuals stay in the area on one night per year. Homelessness nationally has dropped by about 11 percent since 2012, according to similar surveys nationwide.

But Englewood’s story, advocates who help the homeless say, has evaded that trend.

They, along with police and city officials, point to a complex web of reasons as to why:

The city’s easy-access location along the light rail and South Broadway bus corridors may play a role. Rising housing costs in Denver and suburban areas, the opioid epidemic and policies in Denver that push out the homeless likely also are contributing factors.

“There are many theories on causality, including the passage of Amendment 64,” City Manager Eric Keck said about the 2012 amendment to the state Constitution that legalized recreational marijuana. But there’s “also the rapidly rising cost of housing in Colorado along the Front Range, which has forced many people to lose their homes. It is too difficult to pinpoint when this issue really started.”

One factor may be policies such as Denver’s 2012 ban on camping on private and public property, which may be pushing more homeless into the suburbs, said Cathy Alderman, vice president of communications and public policy at Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, a Denver-based organization that provides housing, health care and other supportive services.

When Denver police enforce the camping ban in actions that have become known as “sweeps,” people disperse to surrounding cities for periods of time, Alderman said.

“I will say that since the camping ban was passed, we have not seen a decrease in people experiencing homelessness,” she said. “We know that only exacerbates that experience.”

Boo Crosby, a manager at Cafe 180, a restaurant that provides meals in exchange for volunteer service for those who can’t pay and often serves homeless patrons, said homeless individuals also move out of Denver out of fear for their safety.

“It seems like a lot of folks are starting to move south into Englewood,” he said. “It’s not a problem that’s decreasing whatsoever.”

The homeless who use services in Denver also may prefer to sleep in a place like Englewood — on the river, in alleys, in parks or behind stores — to avoid safety issues at Denver shelters, said Donna Zimmerman, director at Giving Heart, a homeless-services center on South Broadway that began operating in 2011. It moved from its original location in the CityCenter Englewood area, near the civic center, in 2015.

But people experiencing homeless in their own communities is also on the rise, Alderman said. In the Denver metro area, rents climbed 52 percent between 2005 and 2015, according to Apartment List, a rental-listing site that researches industry trends. They also rose sharply in Englewood — one-bedroom rents increased nearly 20 percent since 2014, from $978 to $1,168 this year.

“People everywhere are one paycheck away” from homelessness, Alderman said, or “one health condition or one loss of job because housing stability is so insecure right now.”

MORE: For a homeless person, getting job not as easy as it may look

Mike Sandgren, a coordinator at Wellspring Anglican Church at 4300 S. Lincoln St., where a food pantry and medical program offer help on weekends to the homeless and others in need, agrees.

“I know a lot of people who ... have lived in Englewood their whole life who either are or have experienced homelessness recently,” said Sandgren, also the network leader for Change the Trend.

Sgt. Reid McGrath, who oversees the Impact Team of officers who address specific issues in the city, said police see “a split of people” — many have deep ties to the Englewood community, a portion are from out of state and some have connections to Denver and other Colorado areas.

And Sayyah, the director at HOPE food pantry, said about 10 percent of households — the pantry’s term to categorize clients — that the organization serves are homeless. Some say they’re passing through the area, and most don’t come back a second time. He thinks most stay outdoors.

“They’ll come in without socks, haven’t bathed in a month,” Sayyah said.

At Giving Heart, Zimmerman said, patrons were mostly aged 18-24, but recently, more people up to about 40 years old — and sometimes older — have come in. More are white than Hispanic or black, and about four times as many men as women come to the center.

The national opioid epidemic, which has affected Colorado in recent years, also is cited as a cause for homelessness, according to U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, who recently spoke to Englewood City Council about the issue.

But although drug use can deplete a person’s resources, it’s difficult to make a firm link between public drug use and lacking housing, McGrath said.

“We experience drug-use problems across the full spectrum of our residents,” McGrath said. “You would certainly think if they’re using in the library, it’s more likely for someone to be homeless. But the fact of the matter is people might do it there to avoid doing it at home.”

McGrath, a member of Change the Trend, also served on the board of directors in 2016-17 for Love INC of Littleton, a nonprofit that works to help the homeless and others in need. He noted that police tend to find a significant amount of co-occurring mental health and substance-use issues among the homeless.

But while there is room for debate on the root cause, community members ranging from a formerly homeless man to high-level city officials agree homelessness is on the rise in Englewood.

“Our homeless population has increased significantly in the past four to five years,” said McGrath, who participated in the January cleanup along the Platte and has been with the police department since 1992. “The river is the worst I’ve seen it in my time here.”

Safety is a primary concern

Take a drive down South Platte River Drive near West Dartmouth Avenue — that’s where dozens set up camps, like David Morrison, who now has an apartment but was homeless in the Englewood area for nearly 1 1/2 years.

Morrison’s old home base along the Platte between West Hampden and Oxford avenues, where he stayed from September 2016 to February 2017, is a common one in an area where Denver, Sheridan and Englewood converge.

MORE: Morrison's story: 'Things in life happen'

But people also sleep in cars near the 3400 block of South Broadway in the downtown public-parking area, said Rita Russell, Englewood’s mayor pro tem.

Camps have left waste in parks such as Cushing, near Dartmouth Avenue and South Santa Fe Drive, Keck said.

The effects of homelessness also reach into the heart of the city, as Mike Lindgren, owner of Gekko Vapes in the 4300 block of South Broadway, has complained to Englewood City Council.

Members of the business community on his block and near the Englewood Civic Center say homeless individuals near doorways and in shops have driven away potential customers, said Keck, the city manager. Businesses near Lindgren have brought grievances to city council at meetings and through email in recent months.

Liquor bottles, cigarette butts, needles, yelling and aggressive interactions — along with a person using a cigarette ashtray as a toilet — have all made appearances near Lindgren’s store next door to Giving Heart, Lindgren said in an interview in March.

“I need my customers and employees and yes, even me, to feel safe,” Lindgren said, “and right now, no one does.”

At a shop just doors down from Lindgren, Kellie Martinez, owner of Broadway Barbers, was assaulted on Jan. 16 after she asked two patrons of Giving Heart to stop standing near her barbershop’s front door and blocking access, according to a police report. One of them allegedly became angry and struck her. Personnel at Giving Heart told police the individuals had caused problems recently and were no longer welcome.

Russell met with business owners in the area around the middle of 2017 to talk about their concerns. She requested the details from Englewood police on Martinez’s assault because “business owners had concerns that were not being addressed,” Russell said.

The city has participated with Change the Trend mostly through the police department, Keck said, to “ensure that homelessness is not criminalized but rather to help formulate a response that will help ensure harmonious relations between all citizens.”

“The homeless are also human beings and citizens who have a right to exist,” he said. “But in some instances they have driven customers away due to perceptions about these individuals.”

At the Englewood Public Library, which sits on the first floor of the civic center, more than 20 incidents with patrons involving mostly alcohol and some drugs were recorded between March 2017 and March 2018, according to Patron Information Tracking System (PITS) reports provided by library manager Jon Solomon following a Colorado Community Media request. Library staff fills out the reports, which are used internally to keep track of incidents, Solomon said.

Needles and bloody tissue are sometimes found in the bathroom, Solomon said. Such items are found about a dozen times in a typical year, he added. In one incident in February, patrons said a male urinated on the carpet. When they said something about what he was doing, he started yelling at them, according to the PITS reports. The patrons said he was “shooting up” in the bathroom and left a needle outside the building on the ground.

There seemed to be more drug-related incidents this winter than in past years, Solomon said.

Solomon said he can’t determine how many drug- and alcohol-related incidents are connected to homeless patrons, but said someone with a drug problem “probably needs a warm, dry place to do that.” He added that finding needles, usually in the men’s restroom, can be common in the winter, but evidence of drug use is uncommon during the summer.

“It’s a concern any time,” Solomon said, “because it’s just so dangerous.”

Earlier this year, the library added sharps containers in the bathrooms, in which people — including those who are diabetic — can dispose of used needles, Solomon said.

Solomon did say patrons who appear to be homeless, a handful of them regulars, use the library. Dorothy Hargrove, director of Englewood’s parks, recreation and library, maintains that the numbers of those who appear to be homeless at the library aren’t much more pronounced than in previous years.

Since the vast majority of all patrons don’t cause problems of any kind, it’s likely that most patrons who appear to be homeless don’t cause incidents either, Solomon said.

Homelessness is “definitely a community problem,” he said. “Whatever those solutions are, I think it’s going to take (a community) to resolve that. It’s not unique to Englewood at all.”

Looking forward

Amid discussion within Change the Trend, the Englewood City Council scheduled a study-session meeting about homelessness for May 14.

“This is only the beginning of our discussion on homelessness,” said Russell, the mayor pro tem.

First, the council must identify what the problem is, what resources it has, what agencies should be involved and how the city can or should be involved, Russell said.

“There are existing entities that can address many of the issues,” she said, “so we need to be careful not to reinvent the wheel.”

In a May 4 meeting with DeGette, the U.S. congresswoman who represents Denver, Englewood, Sheridan, Cherry Hills Village, Bow Mar and unincorporated areas west of Littleton, the council talked about its lack of experience with the issue.

“We have never had any resources focused on this at all,” said Councilmember Linda Olson, asking if the state or Arapahoe County could help.

DeGette suggested a survey or study to look at the homeless population in Englewood.

“Is it people who (deal with) substance abuse?” DeGette asked. “Is it families who can’t afford housing? Is it all of the above?”

But Englewood, a city preparing to take on a large financial obligation for infrastructure projects — including road and bridge updates, security cameras, and even police-radio maintenance — doesn’t have the money to adequately address the problem, Olson said.

The city also doesn’t have the funding to provide transitional housing, Keck said.

Added Olson: “We need a regional approach.”

Change the Trend Network members have echoed a call for collaboration.

At the first community forum held by the organization in March, members acknowledged they had no easy answers. But the group has urged involvement from residents, businesses, city officials — everyone — saying change won’t happen without entities working together.

Nathan Hoag, parish pastor at The Sacred Grace Englewood church, urged those at the forum to play a part in creating accessible resources for addressing homelessness.

Because, he said, “Ignoring it and saying there’s nothing we can do — it’s not our fault, it’s not our problem — doesn’t work.”

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