Denverites could find themselves homeless again when housing vouchers expire

Advocates for homeless people in Denver this month demanded that city leaders intervene to help 42 people who might return to the streets, two years after the city worked with service providers to move them into subsidized housing.

The vouchers for “rapid rehousing”. that they received and provided significant monthly rental assistance are now set to expire — highlighting what advocates see as a limitation on such short-term solutions to homelessness.

Members of House Keys Action Network Denver held up signs at the April 15 Denver City Council meeting that reused the In-N-Out Burger chain's logo, reading: “Inside-N-Out back on the streets.”

Officials with the city's housing department point to the overall success of the 2022 rapid rehousing program, which moved nearly 200 people into their own places. According to the Denver Department of Housing Stability, also known as HOST, about three in four people who received a voucher through the city-led housing boom have since transitioned into permanent housing or moved in with family or friends.

But those same officials acknowledge that short-term vouchers are not a silver bullet to solving homelessness. The situation also underscores a larger reality for new Mayor Mike Johnston's expansive initiative, which has sheltered large numbers of people: Providing people with short-term stability often does not mean permanently stabilizing them.

“Homelessness is incredibly complex and requires many different interventions and many different strategies depending on the person and their needs and their journey,” said Jamie Rife, the city's HOST director. “We work with all our partners to ensure we achieve the most positive results.”

While the status of those with expiring vouchers is still in flux, the housing department emphasizes that none of those 42 people had lost their homes as of mid-last week.

Teri Washington is one of them. She spoke at the mid-April council meeting and asked city leaders to find a way to help.

Washington, 53, lives in a one-bedroom apartment on Park Avenue West in the Five Points neighborhood. She pays $413 a month of her $1,300 in monthly federal disability benefits to live there. The voucher covers the rest, she said.

A herniated disc in her spine cost her a decades-long career at AT&T and set her on a path to homelessness, she said.

Next Tuesday, Washington says she will lose the voucher and the apartment. Despite her comments at the council meeting, Washington said Wednesday she had not heard from anyone from the city's housing department or the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless and the Delores Project. These two nonprofits helped her get her voucher and get into her apartment.

“Nothing has changed. I haven't heard from anyone – I still go out on the 30th,” she said in an interview.

Most voucher holders are still in a home

The housing boom that put Washington in her apartment occurred in early 2022 under then-Mayor Michael Hancock. According to HOST, it was the result of a 100-day joint effort between the city and partner organizations.

Of the 198 people who benefited, 79% had left the program by mid-April, according to HOST data. A large majority of that subgroup – 145 people, or 73% of all original participants – are now in more permanent housing or stable housing with friends and family.

A smaller subset — 5% of those who transitioned — have returned to homelessness, according to the city's data.

Terese Howard, a homeless advocate at House Keys Action Network Denversaid the situation highlighted that rapid rehousing vouchers that expire after two years are not effective in the long term.

Howard noted that of those who transitioned into permanent housing, the vast majority did so with the help of supplemental housing subsidies, according to HOST data.

But Rife said the 2022 housing boom outcome is close to hitting an 80% success benchmark typically set in the city's contracts for rapid rehousing programs, with still time left to help more people find a solution to the achieve in the longer term.

But benchmarks mean little to the people who face the prospect of being displaced.

Washington is preparing for the worst. She pointed one GoFundMe last month's crowdfunding campaign to raise money for moving and storage costs. So far, she has raised less than half of the $4,000 she is asking for. Her plan for now is to live in her car, just like she did when she first became homeless in 2021.

“Why would you let me live in something for two years and then I have to move out again?” she said in the interview. “I don't want to go back into the system, because the system is wrong. It's not fair. It's not reliable. It's just not stable for anyone.”

The city's more recent efforts on homelessness have taken the form of Johnston's All In Mile High initiative, which he launched upon taking office in July to move people into temporary shelters (often hotel rooms) and then into permanent housing. Starting Saturday, the city's online dashboard counted 1,481 people moved in through that program, 833 of whom were still in city shelters, while 428 had found more permanent housing.

The dashboard counted 132 people who had returned to unsheltered homelessness, or almost 9% of all participants.

Denver Mayor Mike Johnston, left, talks with homeless resident Reuben Howard at a tent encampment along East 18th Avenue and North Marion Street in Denver on Thursday, Dec. 21, 2023. Several organizations cleared the encampment and housed 67 unhoused residents at a former Double Tree Hotel as part of Johnston's plan to house 1,000 homeless people. (Photo by Andy Cross/JS)

“Different types of interventions” are needed

Critics of Johnston's roughly $90 million homelessness initiative have questioned whether the government will be able to provide adequate support to people dealing with the mental health and substance use issues that contribute to their homelessness.

But people who are older, have a disability or live on a fixed income also face problems. City officials and advocates say more tools are needed to help them.

Cathy Alderman, director of communications and public policy for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, said rapid rehousing vouchers can be a powerful tool for dual-income households that may need some time to become self-sufficient. The vouchers are less useful for individuals who may never be able to secure enough benefits or income to keep up with living expenses.

“I don't think we were wrong in using those resources to house people because those were the resources we had (at the time). But what we need is local, state and federal governments investing in different types of interventions that work for different groups of people,” Alderman said.

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