Homlessness in Englewood, Sheridan and Littleton will be the focus of an in-depth study conducted over the next few months by the University of Denver's Burnes Center on Poverty and Homelessness.
The eight-month study will consist of two parts: an investigation into the lives, conditions and concerns of single people experiencing homelessness, and a concurrent investigation into families experiencing homelessness.
Officials in the three cities say they hope the study, the first of its kind for all three, will provide far more robust data about homelessness to help guide future policy efforts.
“We know homelessness is here, and everyone's got anecdotes, but we don't know nearly as much as we should,” said Littleton Mayor Debbie Brinkman. “That's why this is so important. If we're going to put resources toward this issue, we need to make sure we're actually helping.”
At the end of the study, the Burnes Center, part of the University of Denver's Graduate School of Social Work, will prepare a report that compiles data and interviews about causes, contributing factors and barriers to exiting homelessness, according to City of Littleton documents.
In 2018, the three cities convened the Tri-Cities Homelessness Policy Group, a collaboration consisting of mayors, city managers, and representatives of numerous local and state agencies and charity groups.
While Englewood Mayor Linda Olson said the group has been helpful to coordinate collaboration between stakeholder groups responding to homelessness, it quickly became apparent that the group lacked sufficient data to really move the needle.
“We realized we're not even sure how to describe homelessness, or document it, other than that we know we have homeless people,” Olson said. “We know we don't want people loitering or spending the night in public areas. We know how to do that: it's policing. But we don't know how to do the human care.”
Englewood made headlines over the summer when police evicted dozens of people who had set up camps along the city's short stretch of the South Platte River.
Olson stood by the sweep, saying it made the river corridor safer for all users, and put homeless people in touch with aid organizations.
But, Olson said, “The sweep didn't solve anything regarding homelessness. The people along the river didn't disappear. Some went to Denver, and some went to Littleton.”
Currently, the only statistics regarding homelessness in the cities come from two sources: the annual Point in Time Survey, conducted by the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative as part of a mandate from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, and statistics compiled by school districts as part of the McKinney Vento Act.
The 2019 Point in Time Survey, conducted in a single night by volunteers who visit shelters and seek out unsheltered homeless people, counted 228 “literally homeless” people in Arapahoe County, less than half the count two years earlier.
The number is almost certainly an undercount, according to the Burnes Center's proposal for the study.
The other source, the McKinney-Vento Act, which tasks school districts with gathering data about homelessness from students and their families, counted hundreds more homeless people in the area.
In the 2016-2017 school year, McKinney-Vento reports counted 332 homeless people in Englewood, 334 in Sheridan, and 152 in Littleton.
McKinney-Vento data, however, uses a different definition than the Point in Time survey, counting people living with friends or doubled up with family.
“Housing insecurity is not as easy to see,” said Sheridan Mayor Tara Beiter-Fleuhr. “While they're fortunate to have housing, it's basically at the whim of the homeowner.”
The Burnes Center study will conduct dozens of interviews with people experiencing homelessness that may challenge preconceived notions about the issue, said Daniel Brisson, the Burnes Center's executive director.
“Once we clearly understand the situation through assessment, we're better equipped to address it,” Brisson said. “Rumor and anecdote don't help much. We know many people are interacting with people experiencing homelessness: librarians, police officers, medical providers and many more. This is touching all parts of the community.”
While the causes of homelessness can be as complex as the people experiencing it, Brisson said much of the issue in the Denver area — and nationwide — is driven by rising housing costs.
“Housing's just not affordable for folks anymore,” Brisson said. “At the end of that are people who are already housing insecure, who can find themselves pushed out.”
Drug addiction and mental illness can also be significant driving factors behind homelessness, Brisson said, demonstrating that insufficient resources exist to address the issues.
Brisson said he's heard people say that legal marijuana draws homeless people to Colorado, but said he's yet to see any evidence that proves that true.
“You might find someone experiencing homelessness who's happy to be here and smoke marijuana, but you can definitely find that among people who are housed as well,” Brisson said.
Though homelessness is increasingly a politicized issue, Brisson said, the issue transcends party politics.
“As a nation, as a people, how are we checking our humanity?” Brisson said. “People experiencing homelessness are not wild animals, or people to be discarded.”
Littleton's Mayor Brinkman agreed that homelessness can't be laid at the feet of Republicans or Democrats.
"This is everybody’s fault," Brinkman said. "Partisanship is why things don’t get done. If you want to see things get done, that's through coalitions like this Tri-Cities group. We want to be leaders in innovative and successful solutions on this problem. We are not playing politics with this. This is about humanity."
The study is already up and rolling, Brisson said, with an expected completion date of May 2020. The reports generated by the study will be given to community leaders, he said, who will decide how the information guides future policy efforts.
The study's total cost is $107,141, according to documents from the City of Littleton, with $55,596 being paid by Arapahoe County. The remaining cost was split three ways by Englewood, Sheridan and Littleton, though Englewood's Mayor Olson said the final cost won't be known for a little while longer, as numerous stakeholders including area hospitals and parks districts are pledging various amounts toward the effort.
Littleton's Mayor Brinkman said she's hopeful the study will represent a big leap in how local leaders address homelessness.
“It's not going away,” Brinkman said. “And we can't ignore it.”