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Massive survey on homelessness, housing in Denver finds current solutions to tackle crisis are not working

Report finds the unhoused have lost faith in the housing system due to years-long waitlists, abysmal housing lottery odds
Posted: 3:03 PM, Mar 21, 2023
Updated: 2023-03-21 19:49:00-04
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DENVER – A massive, one-of-a-kind survey of nearly 1,000 people currently experiencing homelessness in Denver found the city’s current approach to the housing crisis isn’t working, and better solutions are needed to address the barriers that are keeping people from finding and staying in affordable housing.

The survey, commissioned by Housekeys Action Network Denver (HAND) in partnership with the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WARP), interviewed 828 people experiencing homelessness in Denver – about 17% of the homeless population estimated to live in the city in January 2022 – to better inform citizens, politicians, policy makers and other stakeholders about the kind of housing advocates and city leadership should be working towards to address the needs of the unhoused.

“If we are working to ‘end homelessness,’ as is so often stated, this work must be directed by houseless people themselves,” states the report. “Lived experience offers an intimate understanding and ability to identify current and foreseeable obstacles that perpetuate this ever-pressing issue.”

The report found between 93% and 99% of unhoused people in Denver want some form of housing, with safety, freedom and community being personal qualities that those surveyed said they sought when looking for housing.

RELATED: Homelessness in Denver: An in-depth look into an ongoing crisis

In other words, people want to feel safe in the place that they live in – they want to feel safe at night so they can let their guard down and actually rest. Those surveyed also said they want to feel a sense of freedom in the place they call home, instead of being shackled by curfews or strict regulations set forth by an agency or housing authority. And last but not least, they want to feel a sense of community – being able to talk to people and create bonds with those around them.

Housing for the unhoused also needs to provide amenities like temperature control for days when it’s too cold or too hot, bathrooms with showers to stay clean and accessible locations, those surveyed in the report said.

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Affordable housing also needs to live up to its name and be affordable, the housing advocacy group said in its report.

The survey found between 81%-88% of those interviewed needed housing to be under $1,000 a month; between 60%-69% said housing needed to be under $600; and only 17%-29% of unhoused people said housing needed to be free.

By and large, the lack of affordable housing was the number one barrier to accessing housing in Denver, the survey found.

Other barriers that prevent unhoused people from getting a place to call their own relate to money. Over 50% of people surveyed (53%) said not having enough money was a barrier to access housing, while another 38% said a low credit score prevented them from renting a home in the first place.

Not having a phone (35%), not having official documents (32.8%), and having a felony record (31.8%) were also identified as barriers in getting access to housing.

Getting a place to live is just half the battle, though, according to those surveyed. Staying there is the next uphill battle for many.

The HAND survey found the majority of people (63%) who were able to get housing still needed financial support to remain housed.

Beyond financial support, though, those who secured housing said being allowed to have guests over was an important support they needed to feel like they could stay there (36%), and also noted that support when navigating the bureaucracy of the process (25%) as well as legal and mental health support (24%) was something they sought as they searched for housing.

Between 39% and 49% of those surveyed said curfews, restrictions, not being allowed to have guests or have a limited number of guests, staff room checks, religious requirements and being prohibited from having roommates or partners were seen as “deal breakers” when choosing housing options, the report said.

“Houseless people rightfully lack faith in the housing system,” the HAND report reads. “Their doubt is backed by years-long waitlists, abysmal housing lottery odds, and a dependency on service providers and case managers as gatekeepers.”

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The survey showed that the unhoused in Denver are placed on housing waitlists for an average of two-and-a-half years and noted it takes them almost four years before they’re able to secure housing.

Qualifying for housing is yet another major barrier identified by those surveyed, and relying on agencies to secure housing for them is a major roadblock in their goal of having a roof over their heads.

“People are jumping through endless hoops, dependent on service agencies and case workers that don’t and can’t do what’s needed, pitted against other unhoused people in competition for the same handful of housing options, forced to go through years of process while trying to survive without housing,” the advocacy group said in their report.

The report noted that despite housing vouchers being regarded as the most current pathway to housing, over 50% of those surveyed didn’t even know what a housing voucher was, how it worked, nor knew anyone who has ever had one.

RELATED: Colorado's shifting housing market and what it means for 2023

Worse yet, in order to qualify for a housing voucher, one has to be an American citizen – leaving Hispanic people who experience homelessness out of the process to secure safe, long-term housing, the report concluded.

Landlord discrimination, the need for support or services (namely housing navigation), and not having the choice to choose the type of housing they could settle in were also identified by those experiencing homelessness as a barrier in using vouchers.

"Despite the fact that Colorado has a law that says you can't discriminate against somebody if they do have a housing voucher, we know that what happens is that property managers and landlords will raise the rent, so that the voucher can no longer cover the cost," said Cathy Alderman, a spokesperson with the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. "And so that's one way of voucher doesn't get used."

HAND survey also includes new research on public housing in Denver, the U.S.

The 2022 Pipe Dreams and Picket Fences report also looked at the loss of public housing over the past ten years in Denver and across the nation, and the shift toward private-public partnerships that the advocacy group argues “does not create the housing people need.”

Per the report, the U.S. has seen a loss of 228,290 low-income public housing units. Of those, 731 were lost in Denver in the past 10 years. Funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for assistance-based programs or neighborhood/community development or revitalization has remained stagnant, the report states.

The rate for finding and using a voucher for housing in Denver has also been “unacceptably low,” the group writes, with an increase of 1,429 housing vouchers issued over the past 10 years.

“In 2021, five months after receiving vouchers through the Denver Housing Authority (over one month beyond the current 120-day expiration), only 77 of 1,000 people with vouchers got housing,” according to the report. “This is an 8% chance of finding housing using a voucher.”

Low-Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC) have increased to 181% in Colorado, according to the report, but that rate “did not match an equally high increase of actual units.”

Only 3,029 housing units have been built with those tax credits for people who fall under the 30% area median income, compared with 12,588 units for those making between 40%-70% of the area median income, the report states.

“Housing is a commodity built for the rich, and poor people are left to struggle and fight for the few scraps of housing left for the poor,” the advocacy group writes, adding homelessness is a “direct result” of the decisions made by the Reagan administration in the 1980s to slash funding of social programs, including affordable housing.

“From top to bottom, the government response to houselessness has failed for one simple reason: It has never acknowledged through action, only words, that the number one cause of houselessness is the absence of housing,” the report states.

Alderman agreed.

"We need to invest all of our housing resources and develop housing for those with the lowest income. We need to really focus on solving this issue and getting people off the streets. We also need to make more resources available," she said. "It's not just having housing; we need to have supportive services so that when individuals do get housed, they can stay housed. And I think we really need it as a state. We need to start focusing on making those investments for folks in the lowest income because it's not just up to the city alone to be able to solve this issue."

Massive survey on homelessness, housing in Denver finds current solutions to tackle crisis are not working

Denver7 reporter Micah Smith contributed to this report.

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