Homelessness in Denver


Photo by Rachel Ledon

Imagine that everything you own could fit in a Wal-Mart shopping cart.  You spend your nights sleeping in a tent on the side of a street. You have an old, rugged jacket that you keep in a trash bag that hangs over your shopping cart. Sometimes it’s enough to keep warm. Sometimes, it isn’t.

You don’t have a job. You don’t have a house. You don’t have much.

You walk to the nearest gas station to buy a bag of pretzels with the spare change that you have collected from the day. Returning to your corner you find that your small collection of possessions has been taken. It hasn’t been stolen by thieves but rather was seized by city officials.

This is the reality that many of Denver’s homeless people are facing. With flocks of young professionals and business owners flocking to the booming city, it is becoming increasingly difficult to live homeless in Denve

The Issue in Numbers

This issue is not unique to Denver. Homelessness has been an increasingly difficult problem to tackle in cities across the nation.  A point-in-time survey done by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in 2013 says that on any given day there are 610,000 people living on the streets in America. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, this number has dropped to 564,708 people in 2015.

While the numbers seem to be decreasing nationally, Denver is seeing an increase in its point-in-time surveys of the issue. A study done by the Denver Metro Homeless Initiative shows that there were 3,978 homeless people in Denver in 2015 compared to 3,365 the year before and 3,530 in 2013.


Infographic by Rachel Ledon

While these figures provide insight into the severity of the issue, they do not capture the issue in its entirety. According to CQ researcher, an informational database, “Counting the homeless population remains an inexact science.” In other words, these numbers don’t tell the whole story. Here’s why…

The numbers represented above capture the number of homeless people as they are defined by the HUD. The HUD definition of homelessness however, is criticized for being too narrow. It doesn’t include those who are living on couches, in cars, etc.  So while the HUD counts around 4,000 homeless people in Denver, there have been around 6,130 homeless people counted across the Denver Metro Area who live without a home according to the Denver Metro Homeless Initiative.

What causes homelessness?

In order to get a comprehensive, fact-based solution to the problem of homelessness, it is important to fully understand its causes and its roots.


Photo by Rachel Ledon

There are a vast number of different economic and social factors that may cause homelessness. According to the CQ researcher, experts agree that poverty is the largest cause of homelessness. This fact however is not extremely insightful because there are many different aspects to poverty. Poverty could be a result of poor education, overall lapses in economic growth, or unemployment rates. Overall, most experts agree that governmental policies that aim to raise wages and expand employment oppertunities at the bottom can help the issue of homelessness.

Economic trends are only one cause of the issue. Social factors such as domestic abuse, physical disabilities, and traumatic experiences can also lead one to be at a greater risk of becoming homeless. In an article from CQ researcher, DeCandia from the National Center on Family says that some families “don’t report major mental health issues or major trauma,” but they can be “really struggling on the poverty cliff.”

One of the most significant causes of homelessness nationwide is mental health problems and lack of healthcare. Peer reviewed research conducted by Jhhsa Summer (2015) highlights key insight into mental illness and mental healthcare as a major factor of homelessness.

“Mental health issues tend to be one of the leading causes of homelessness.” Jhhsa says. “Once on the street the mentally ill tend to remain there indefinitely.”

Jhhsa goes on point to government’s responsibility to protect these mentally ill, homeless people through welfare services and mental health care.

Other solutions to homelessness

Surely mental health and health care services may dilute some of the negatives effects of homelessness but it is just one piece of the much larger issue. Professor Nantiya Ruan from the Sturm College of Law described the many different approaches that society may


Professor Nantiya Ruan, Photo by the Sturm College of Law

take to help the issue. Her student’s research specifically looks at the effects of law and litigation on the issue. In an interview, she discussed the effect that law and litigation can have on the issue of homelessness.

“Litigation is a tool and it does have the power to bring lasting change,” says professor Ruan. “But it can only be one avenue.”

Professor Ruan signifies the importance of a multi-faceted approach when attempting to make progress in the complex issue of homelessness.

Other avenues may include going through legislation and policy building. Creating laws that allow for panhandling or creating plans for housing developments can be beneficial in solving the complex issue of homelessness.

How organizations help

As the issue of homelessness is prevalent in Denver and across the nation, organization that work to pacify the negative impacts and work to eradicate the issue have taken notice.

The Denver Rescue Mission is a faith-based organization that aims to meet homeless people’s basic needs in hopes to return them to society as productive, self-sufficient citizens. The organization recently opened a new community center on Lawrence Street in response to the growing number of people needing help.

“Homelessness is a growing issue for Denver and we are seeing an increasing


Stacy Parker, Photo by the Denver Rescue Mission

need for support and use of our facilities,” says Denver Rescue Mission PR coordinator Stacy Parker.

The Denver Rescue Mission has a two tier approach to solving homelessness. The first is meeting the basic needs of those living without a home. In their community centers homeless people have access to shower services, laundry services, and providing meals. The second tier of their organization’s approach, are the sustainable programs that attempt to provide homeless people with training to help them better their situation. This is the long term effect approach. This sector helps those looking to find work and get back on their feet so that they may be self-sustaining, productive people.

Some other organizations around Denver that are working to understand and help the issue of homelessness include Burnes Center on Poverty and Homelessness, Joshua Station, Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, and Urban Peak.

Denver’s reactions to homelessness

The City of Denver has not done much to appease the homeless situation in Denver. Mayor Hancock’s urban camping bans have not received wide support.

Furthermore, the recent city “sweepings” have been given attention in the media. These sweeps are characterized by city officials coming to popular homeless hubs and seizing the homeless people’s things.  Many are scrutinizing the city for taking inhumane actions against homeless. A class action lawsuit was even filed against the city and questioning


Photo by Rachel Ledon

the legality of the sweeps.

“The fact that Denver is choosing to do these sweeps continually as opposed to try to mediate a solution is very telling,” says law student Becca Butler-Dings.

Butler-Dings is a part of a group of students at the Sturm College of Law created an in-depth academic report, looking at the constitutionality of many of the city’s laws regarding homelessness. The report looked at the bans that the city has put on things like panhandling, urban camping, and the sit/lie prohibitions. These ordinances make it extremely difficult to live as a homeless person in Denver. The report includes that “The cumulative effect of anti-homeless ordinances is clear: living without a home in Colorado nearly guarantees that a person will break some law”.

The public perception

Public awareness is a major theme in helping create the larger narrative behind what it means to be living in poverty in the Denver community. Public perception of homelessness and the government’s role in the issue may alter the strategies that are employed to combat homelessness. According data from the Pew Research Center, roughly half of the public (51%) think that the government today can’t afford to do much more to help the needy. Forty four percent say that “poor people today have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything in return.” Interestingly, a Roper opinion poll that was taken in 2013 says that 70% of people were either somewhat or very dissatisfied with the nation’s efforts to deal with homelessness and poverty.

img_2039These figures elude to the fact that the public is very split in their perception of the issue. This calls for a greater need of reliable information to be released for the public’s knowledge regarding homelessness, its causes, and the role of the state in the issue.

Denver-based magazines like Westword and 5280 have been covering many aspects of the issue as it continues growing in Denver. In the article by Westword titled “Debunking six myths about homelessness” Chris Walker wrote about some of the major misconceptions about homelessness. These myths include the legalization of pot causing increased homelessness, the idea that the homeless aren’t looking for jobs, and the idea that one should assign fault to a homeless person.

Through facts and data, Walker is able to debunk many of these myths. For example, Walker’s article includes that the leading causes of homelessness in Denver is due to one’s inability to find work and high housing causes. This fact is contrasted to the public’s idea of the top causes being unemployment and substance abuse.

“The public has great power”, says student-volunteer for Joshua Station Lexxi Reddington. “If people can rally behind the issue with an informed opinion, we can create a positive change in the future of homelessness”.


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