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Q&A: Struggling With Homelessness Over the Holidays

Analysis
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Homelessness

While the holiday season is primarily about spending time with family and friends, it’s also about taking the time to help those who are in need.

Daniel Brisson is a professor in the Graduate School of Social Work and executive director of the Center on Housing and Homelessness. His research focuses on individuals and families struggling with issues associated with homelessness. Brisson took a moment to share his insight about homelessness in Denver and the upcoming Point-in-Time (PIT) count, which occurs on a single night of the people in a community who are experiencing homelessness.

The 2020 count will take place in January. Do you expect the homeless population in the Denver metro area will continue to rise, possibly surpassing 6,000 people?

Daniel Brisson
Daniel Brisson

I do expect it will rise, and I think it is possible it could surpass 6,000 people. However, I think it will rise for a number of reasons you may not expect. In the homelessness field, it is commonly accepted that the Point-in-Time Count is imprecise, represents an undercount of homelessness, and is only our best estimate of homelessness, not necessarily an accurate census of homelessness. So, we may see a rise in the PIT count, and that will likely mean that there are more people experiencing homelessness. However, it may also be because there is an increase in the attention people are giving to the issue of homelessness, which has translated into more resources and more attention on the PIT count, which may result in more people experiencing homelessness being counted.

How much of the increase do you believe can be attributed to homeless individuals moving to the metro area versus unforeseen circumstances leading individuals to become homeless?

Experiencing homelessness, by its nature, can often mean that one is mobile, and not secure in one place. I do think that the housing crisis in the metro area is resulting in a wide range of housing insecurity issues, including homelessness. However, I also know that in Denver, the strong multi-sector investment to addressing homelessness is putting people who were once homeless into stable housing. I also believe that there are people experiencing homelessness moving into the metro area. However, I also believe there are people experiencing homelessness moving out of the metro area. Right now, we don’t have clear enough data to tell us whether there is a net positive or negative from moves in and out of homelessness and from homelessness migration in and out of the metro area.

What is one thing that cities in the metro area are doing well to try and combat homelessness?

They are investing in the issue. Cities across the metro area have begun to own the issue and are putting resources in to address homelessness. Our Center on Housing and Homelessness is performing a family assessment of homelessness as well as an assessment of chronic homelessness for the cities of Englewood, Littleton and Sheridan. The city of Denver is also identifying new financial investments to address the issue. Providing housing is expensive. However, when we invest in generating housing affordability the result can be a reduction in homelessness.

What is one thing that cities could be doing better to slow down the growth of the homeless population?

The issue of homelessness is quite complex. However, one straight-forward part of the issue is the challenge of addressing housing affordability. If we can provide more housing affordability, through innovative policies like ADUs and tiny homes, we generate a larger stock of housing available to people with limited resources. If we can create new partnerships, public and private for example, that are willing to invest previously unavailable resources in housing affordability, we can also increase the stock of housing available to people with limited resources. However, there are many other aspects of the issue to consider including mental health, living wages, health insurance, high-quality education, and others that also need to be addressed.

How is the Center on Housing and Homelessness actively working with the community to address housing security and homelessness?

The Center on Housing and Homelessness generates information about housing security and homelessness to impact the issue. We have a number of projects running now. We are conducting homelessness assessments in the cities of Englewood, Littleton and Sheridan. We are testing the impact of tiny home villages on resident and community member outcomes. We are part of a team building trauma informed design concepts for the architecture and construction of permanent supportive housing. We are testing the causal relationship between traumatic brain injury and homelessness, and we are testing a 12-week manualized intervention that builds family and community relationships in high-poverty neighborhoods. Information from all of this work will continue to inform the issues of housing security and homelessness and provide guidance for programming and policy making.