Denver’s Better Way to Battle Homelessness

A comprehensive, multifaceted partnership balances support and compassion with an expectation of self-reliance. And it saves money.
by | May 2, 2012 AT 5:00 PM

Few social ills are more tragic than homelessness, and it's even worse when families with children are the victims. It is a problem of almost unimaginable complexity, making it easy to conclude that it's simply intractable. But one program is proving that this scourge can be overcome — and save taxpayers money in the process.

Denver's Road Home (DRH) was launched in 2005 with the goal of eliminating homelessness in the city in 10 years. The ambitious program is a joint effort involving the city, the local United Way chapter, businesses, individual volunteers and more than 20 foundations and 250 religious congregations.

By 2009, the program had raised more than $45 million to support its efforts. Programming balances support and compassion with an expectation of self-reliance, and every goal that DRH funds can be quantified and measured.

The DRH strategy is truly comprehensive. Its initiatives include prevention efforts; providing education, employment and training services; developing affordable housing; working with child-support enforcement; and seeking zoning laws that are more flexible when it comes to shelter locations and hours.

To prevent homelessness, DRH intervenes to provide rent and utility assistance to families in danger of being evicted. For those who already are homeless, the program takes a "housing first" approach under which individuals and families are placed in temporary housing and steered into the social services they need.

But the problems faced by the homeless are often far more basic than the need to boost housing development. At one 2009 DRH event that connected the homeless with service providers focused on providing the basic foundations for building a life, 154 people got identification cards and another 175 received their birth certificates. At the same event, 123 participants developed résumés and 69 scheduled interviews. Some were hired on the spot. Training is also provided in skills such as workplace etiquette.

So far, the results are encouraging. By June, 2,662 new housing units — more than four-fifths of the overall goal of 3,193 — will have been developed, while another 5,714 people have been prevented from becoming homeless. As of 2010, 5,253 homeless persons were employed. Other accomplishments include a 92 percent decrease in panhandling in Denver's downtown business-improvement district and a 22 percent decline in the incarceration of homeless people in the county jail.

Sadly, homelessness is particularly prevalent among those who have served in the military; Denver estimates that up to 20 percent of its chronically homeless are veterans. Thus far, DRH has provided housing and case-management services to nearly 400 vets.

These outcomes are particularly impressive given that they were achieved despite a deep and painful recession that forced even more individuals and families across the nation into homelessness.

The need for coordination, collaboration and case management — the ability to access a disparate array of resources and bring to bear those most likely to help a particular homeless individual or family — runs throughout DRH's efforts. Together, shelters, service providers and outreach workers identify people who repeatedly use only emergency services and connect them to shelter and other services. A pilot "Vulnerability Index" seeks to identify and provide assistance to those among the chronically homeless who are most at risk due to a medical condition.

Accessing emergency services is far more expensive than getting people into housing and providing them with needed services. A two-year analysis of DRH conducted by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless found a $4,745 savings — an annual total of more than $1.5 million — for each person who was moved into housing and treatment. The study also found dramatic declines in visits to hospitals and detox facilities.

Effectively moving people from dependence to dignity requires a response that is as multifaceted as the problem itself. Many of the 450 U.S. jurisdictions with programs designed to win the battle against homelessness would do well to take a close look at what Denver's Road Home has accomplished.