Denverites face possible return to homelessness as vouchers expire — highlighting complexity of city’s challenge

Denver homeless advocates this month have demanded that city leaders step in to help 42 people who faced a potential return to the streets, two years after the city worked with service providers to move them into subsidized housing.

The “rapid rehousing” vouchers they received, providing significant monthly rent support, are now expiring — highlighting what advocates see as a limitation in such short-term solutions to homelessness.

Members of Housekeys Action Network Denver held up signs during the Denver City Council’s April 15 meeting that repurposed the In-N-Out Burger chain’s logo, with the wording: “Inside-N-Out on the street again.”

Officials with the city’s housing department point to the overall success of the 2022 rapid rehousing program, which moved nearly 200 people into places of their own. Roughly three out of every four people who received a voucher through that city-led housing surge have since transitioned into permanent housing or moved in with family or friends, according to the Denver Department of Housing Stability, also referred to as HOST.

But those same officials acknowledge that short-term vouchers are not a silver bullet to solve homelessness. The situation also underlines a larger reality for new Mayor Mike Johnston’s expansive initiative that’s moved large numbers of people into shelter: Giving people short-term stability often doesn’t mean they are stabilized permanently.

“Homelessness is incredibly complex and requires a lot of different interventions and a lot of different strategies, depending on the person and their needs and their journey,” said Jamie Rife, the city’s HOST director. “We’re working with all of our partners to make sure we have the most positive outcomes possible.”

Though the status of the people with expiring vouchers remains in flux, the housing department emphasizes that none of those 42 people, as of mid-last week, had lost their housing yet.

Teri Washington is one of them. She spoke during the mid-April council meeting, asking 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 out of her $1,300 in monthly federal disability benefits to live there. The voucher has covered the rest, she said.

A herniated disk in her spine cost her a decades-long career with AT&T and put her on the path to homelessness, she said.

Come Tuesday, Washington says she will lose the voucher and the apartment. Despite her comments at the council meeting, as of Wednesday, Washington said she had yet to hear from anyone at the city housing department or at the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless and the Delores Project. Those two nonprofit groups helped her obtain her voucher and get into her apartment.

“Nothing has changed. I haven’t heard from anyone — still heading for the streets on the 30th,” she said in an interview.

Most voucher holders are still in housing

The housing surge that placed Washington in her apartment happened under then-Mayor Michael Hancock in early 2022. It was the outcome of a concerted, 100-day effort between the city and partner organizations, according to HOST.

Of the 198 people who benefited, 79% had transitioned out of the program as of mid-April, according to data provided by HOST. A vast 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 subgroup — 5% of those who transitioned out — have returned to homelessness, according to the city’s data.

Terese Howard, a homeless advocate with Housekeys Action Network Denver, said the situation highlighted that rapid rehousing vouchers that sunset after two years are ineffective in the long term.

Howard noted that of the people who transitioned to permanent housing, the vast majority did so with the help of additional housing subsidies, according to data provided by HOST.

But Rife said the outcome of the 2022 housing surge is close to hitting an 80% success benchmark generally set by the city’s contracts for rapid rehousing programs, with time remaining to help more people attain a longer-term solution.

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

Washington is preparing for the worst. She set up a GoFundMe crowdfunding campaign last month to help 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, as she did when she first became homeless in 2021.

“Why would you let me move into something for two years and then I have to move out of it?” she said in the interview. “I don’t want to go back into the system because the system is not right. It’s not fair. It’s not dependable. It’s just not stable for anyone.”

The city’s more recent homelessness efforts 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 permanent housing. As of Saturday, the city’s online dashboard counted 1,481 people moved indoors through that program, 833 of whom were still staying in city shelters while 428 had found more-permanent housing.

The dashboard counted 132 people who had returned to unsheltered homelessness, or nearly 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 cleaned up the camp and offered 67 unhoused residents shelter at a former Double Tree Hotel as part of Johnston’s plan to house 1,000 homeless people. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

“Different kinds of interventions” needed

Critics of Johnston’s roughly $90 million homelessness initiative have questioned if the administration will be able to provide adequate support for people dealing with mental health and substance use challenges that contribute to their homelessness.

But people who are older, who have disabilities or who live on fixed incomes also pose challenges, and city officials and advocates say more tools are needed to help them.

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

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

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The city has stockpiled more housing vouchers to help people in the All In Mile High program. The state awarded the city 195 vouchers last year, though HOST spokesman Derek Woodbury said none have yet been matched with recipients. The Denver Housing Authority has also awarded 100 vouchers to the city, some of which have already been put to use.

Rife noted another major hurdle to getting more people in stable housing: a persistent shortage of available subsidized or income-qualified housing.

“It’s a national challenge that we’re all trying to solve for now, particularly in high-cost cities like Denver,” Rife said. “The administration is very dedicated to saying we are going to create a safe place for (homeless) people to go but we also know we need housing on the other end of this.”

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