Denver Post, February 24, 2008: Denver building on new ideas for helping homeless

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By Christopher N. Osher

The DenverPost

Article Last Updated: 02/24/2008 12:23:38 AM MST


Recovering alcoholic Paula Holland will move into her newsubsidized apartment in Denveron March 1. Hollandhas been participating in a transitional residential treatment program that isdesigned to help her get her life back on track. (Nathan W. Armes, Special toThe Denver Post)


Armed with data showing there’s a hidden cost to leaving theunemployed, mentally ill and alcoholics alone on the streets, Denver officials are pushing forward with a$20 million plan to build 200 new housing units for the homeless.

The plan is in keeping with Mayor John Hickenlooper’shomelessness initiative, which holds that the past patchwork system of shelterswasn’t the best way to tackle the issue.


The proposal is still being finalized and then, depending onfinancial terms, could go before the City Council this spring. The council hasemphasized the need to spread the housing instead of clustering it instrongholds of poverty. While support seems strong among most council members,some reservations persist over that issue, which could raise the ire of someneighborhood activists.


“I can’t emphasize enough the importance of thisproject moving away from the traditional islands of poverty that just warehousefolks,” Councilman Paul Lopez said during a recent council committeemeeting on the subject.


The administration, sensitive to those concerns, is pledgingto make sure the housing is spread around the city, in areas close to masstransit. They are also promising to include on-site managers.


“We would really do our due diligence and make surethese facilities are not in the same old spots,” said Roxane White,director of Denver’sDepartment of Human Services.


In the past, the emphasis was on getting a homeless personan emergency meal and bed for the night. Now, the Hickenlooper administrationis stressing the need to get behind the root problems that cause homelessnessin the first place.


And the best way to do that, officials say, is to provideactual, long-term housing first.


The homeless placed in the new units can stay for months,where they will be encouraged to take advantage of intensive support services,such as drug- addiction counseling, job training and medication for mentalillnesses.


Savings can be big


It’s a theory that first took hold in Philadelphia. More than 300 communities,including Denver,have now embraced it.


A two-year study by Denver CARES, DenverHealthMedicalCenter’saddiction rehabilitation and detox facility, found that the number of emergencyadmissions dropped by 76 percent among 82 clients directed into housingprograms. The number of admissions dropped from 3,701 to 899.


Because detox treatment is so expensive, those reductionsrepresented big cost savings, to the tune of more than $500,000, Denver officials say.


But Councilwoman Jeanne Faatz remains a persistent critic.She argues that voters didn’t get to have a say on the proposal after theadministration declined to put the new housing in the recent $550 million bondpackage that voters approved.


“This is a blatant violation of the trust of thevoters,” Faatz said during a recent meeting. “This is a way to goaround the voters. They have been so generous to Denver, and then to turn around and slap them. . .”


She remains suspicious that the new housing will produceactual cost savings to the general fund and worries that promised federal andstate funds might dry up.


Only by taking away the emergency pressures of surviving dayto day on the streets can the homeless actually stabilize and get back on theroad toward becoming productive members of society, administration officialscounter.


“What we now know is that once we move them indoors andsurround them with services, there is a cost of moving them off thestreets,” said Jamie Van Leeuwen, the project manager for the mayor’s initiativeagainst homelessness. “But compared to the cost of them living on thestreets, there is a significant difference.”


One success story


Denver CARES was where Paula Holland ended up after threemonths on a friend’s sofa. The friend called police after Holland’s vodka drinking got out of control.


Holland had crashed at herfriend’s place upon returning to Denver afterspending four years as a semi driver in Fort Worth, Texas. Theisolation of the truck-driving job brought her back to Denver, where she hoped to find new work andthe supportive embrace of friends.


Instead, she found no work and resorted to drinking todeaden the pain. She would smoke cigarettes and drink the vodka until thebottle was empty and stop just long enough to buy another bottle.


“It was about getting numb and getting away from itall, and then I wanted to get away from that too, but I didn’t know how,” Holland said during arecent interview.


From Denver CARES, she got enrolled in a supportive housingprogram in August provided by Arapahoe House at the WrightCenter the type of housing Denver is looking tocreate. Her case worker there enrolled her in a job-training program thattaught her cooking skills.


Holland went on to aninternship as a cook at the WrightCenter, where she learnedhow to judge proper portions for about 20 other residents.


Last week, she talked about how recent job interviews as acook at a club looked promising. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, she said shefinally got the proper dose of medication and no longer experiences thecrashing lows that once paralyzed her.


She is graduating from the WrightCenterand moving into a studio apartment in Capitol Hill, where her rent will remainsubsidized. Once she gets a job, she’s expected to pay up to 30 percent of herincome toward rent there. She can stay there for two years until she is able tolive fully on her own.


“Without all this, I’d have probably been in thegrave,” Hollandsaid.


Christopher N. Osher: 303-954-1747 or

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