More than $100,000 has been recently awarded to an Arapahoe County nonprofit seeking to support the creation of a navigation center to centralize resources for people experiencing homelessness in the region.
Chaired by former Littleton mayor Susan Thornton, the South Metro Community Foundation announced recently it has received $50,000 from the Daniels Fund — a philanthropic foundation in Denver — as well as $50,000 from Centura Health and $5,000 from the Littleton Rotary Foundation.
It also received $1,500 from the Rotary Club of Englewood and $2,500 from Sheridan Rising Together for Equity.
That is in addition to $300,000 approved by Arapahoe County commissioners in March to be used for the navigation center over the next three years. The county had previously approved $10,000 for the project. In total, more than $400,000 has been allocated to the project.
The money secured so far could be enough to hire two full-time center employees by the end of this year or early next, Thornton said, though that is still contingent on funding.
"Our goal has been to raise enough staffing for the first three years, so we're getting close," Thornton said, adding that staff costs are estimated to be about $220,000 for the center's first year with a 10% increase over the next two years to account for inflation.
The project is a part of a multi-pronged effort from a task force of leaders in Littleton, Englewood and Sheridan who, last summer, launched the Tri-Cities Homeless Action Plan to help get more people housed.
It comes as the Denver metro area faces a rise in homeless numbers, with a 2021 study by the Metro Denver Homelessness Initiative showing the number of unhoused people in the region climbed by 15% between 2018 and 2020.
The navigation center is intended to connect people with various existing resources — such as healthcare, job training, food assistance and addiction recovery — to stabilize their journey out of homelessness.
"Often times people experiencing homelessness need some additional support to navigate the services available to them," said Mike Sandgren, tri-cities homelessness services coordinator for Arapahoe County.
Sandgren, who previously headed Change the Trend — a regional network of nonprofits, churches, schools and agencies working on homelessness solutions — began work as homelessness coordinator July 5.
He will be paid $110,000 per year for at least three years — a cost that will be shared between Littleton, Englewood and Sheridan — to implement the task force's action plan.
Sandgren said task force leaders are hoping for an eventual physical space for the center, but initial outreach could still begin once staff is brought on.
"I think everybody understands the urgency for the navigation center to be up and running but we want to take the time and do our due diligence to make sure it is sustainable for the long haul," Sandgren said.
According to the tri-cities' action plan, a physical navigation center could provide “temporary room and board with limited barriers to entry, showers, restroom, and laundry services, while case managers work to connect homeless individuals and families to income, public benefits, health services, permanent housing or other shelter.”
A physical space could cost about $212,000 per year to run, according to budget documents provided by Thornton, though task force leaders are also looking into securing donated space.
Thornton has made clear that the center is not intended to be a shelter, something that has elicited strong rebuke in south metro communities according to some area leaders.
Littleton Police Commander Hal Mandler, speaking with the Colorado Sun, said "the community would reject" any efforts to build a permanent shelter.
“Everyone wants to help homeless people but not right next to them," Mandler said.
In a previous interview with Colorado Community Media, Samma Fox, Littleton’s assistant to the city manager, said city staff has heard "‘if you build it, they will come’ a number of times," from residents.
“But (the homeless) already here, and we’re really working with our partners to provide resources consistently. The reality is we do have homeless populations in our community," Fox said.
In Englewood, police Sgt. Reid McGrath said his department last year received 1,362 homeless-related calls, the vast majority of which had to do with seeing “unwanted homeless people.”
But as yearly temperatures in the metro area swing from high heat waves to frigid colds, having shelter can be the difference between life and death for those living on the streets.
Arapahoe County data shows that between January 2020 and January 2021, 17 people experiencing homelessness in the county died on the street from natural causes, 22 from drug overdose and four from hypothermia.
Sheridan City Manager Devin Granberry said he hopes to see some form of a shelter alongside the center in the future.
“The answer is housing, the answer is putting a roof over somebody’s head,” Granberry said.
Thornton said the recent round of fundraising makes her hopeful that a navigation center will soon be able to do just that.
"It says that they believe in what we're doing and it's going to get people into secure housing and off the street," Thornton said.