LITTLETON, Colo. — The winter months are the hardest time for those experiencing homelessness to get resources, especially for those in suburban communities.
Many communities outside of major metropolitan areas do not have shelters or resources concentrated in one spot to help people, but with a new plan, several suburban communities outside of Denver are hoping to fix that.
The Tri-Cities Homeless Action Plan was created by Littleton, Sheridan and Englewood: three cities currently without a designated homeless shelter or resource center. This plan outlines how the communities can help individuals and families experiencing homelessness with a pooled network of community partners and municipal resources.
“The challenges really do come to resources. We don’t have the same resources as a lot of other cities do. We don’t have a navigation center, for example. We need to partner in order to get to the best we can do there,” said Samma Fox, the assistant to the city manager for the City of Littleton.
Homelessness was growing in these communities before COVID-19, but the pandemic greatly increased the number of people on the streets. To help, city leaders, local nonprofits and community members came together to form a network of resources that is stepping in to help right now and to plan for better resources in the years to come.
“As a result of COVID, even from last year to this year, the number of people experiencing homelessness in the suburban communities has doubled,” said Lynn Ann Huizingh, the executive director of the nonprofit Severe Weather Shelter Network. “You probably have no idea how many people are on the street in your community.”
“Homelessness is becoming a lot more visible in the suburbs because it's growing,” said Heather Greenwood, who founded GraceFull Café, a pay-what-you-can café that gives free meals to those in need. “Our economic challenges and affordable housing crisis are escalating, so we're seeing it affect all communities. And it's something we're not used to seeing in suburban communities.”
Greenwood and Huizingh are part of a network of local nonprofits working together to provide immediate solutions to homelessness in their suburban communities called Change the Trend.
“We’re kind of leading the charge in some ways on the ground level around addressing the issue,” said Mike Sandgren, the Network Leader of Change the Trend.
“There are a lot of service providers who have been recognizing the issue for a number of years and who have been providing services to people on the streets in some of these suburban communities, so I think the question from a leadership standpoint is: how do we equip those folks to do their work in the best way possible? And then, what kind of new services do we need to bring to the community to address the issue in a little more comprehensive way?” Sandgren said.
Part of the partnership has included a co-responder program where law enforcement officers in the Tri-Cities respond to calls involving an individual experiencing homelessness in crisis with a clinician who can help direct the person to mental healthcare services.
These partnerships and nonprofits banding together become even more important during the winter months. This is the time of year it becomes toughest to survive on the streets.
“The transition from summer into fall into winter, most on the ground service providers will tell you it’s a tough time of the year,” Sandgren said. “It really is a proactive step to try and get ahead of this issue as much as we can in the area through building staff capacity at the municipal and county level, building capacity in the nonprofit community and then streamlining services for individuals experiencing homelessness, families experiencing homelessness and then also leaning into some workforce development programming.”
“The key for Littleton and the Tri-Cities is continued partnership and collaboration. This is not a simple issue with a simple solution,” said Fox, excited that the non-profits on the ground are collaborating while more resources become available on the city level.
The Tri-Cities Homeless Action Plan is a three-year plan, and it is already in action. The cities have been collecting data to help form better solutions, and the next big step will be setting up the navigation center in the years to come.
“A navigation center in the Tri-Cities could look like a one-stop shop for people who would like to exit homelessness or avoid coming into homelessness. There could be lots of resource partners available on site, so you can get directed and connected at that instant,” Fox said.
Those struggling with homelessness are thankful progress is being made. Marilynne became homeless in just the last year and has struggled to find work. She said her time on the streets has been the toughest time in her life, and it’s been made tougher by the stigma attached to experiencing homelessness.
She said she feels forced to be invisible.
“You're not supposed to be in most places. Most homeless people try to be under the radar. Try not to make problems,” she said.
Greenwood said breaking down that stigma and inviting everyone to come to the table is one of her biggest missions at GraceFull Café.
“That's always been our heart is to create a space where everyone feels welcome and has access to not just a meal, but to good, strong relationship and community,” said Greenwood. “I hope that we can be a voice in the community to be a part of that educational awareness piece and create hope and invite people into being part of the solution.”
GraceFull Café has given that hope to Jeramia Osborne who has been living in his car after losing his job and home.
“I lost my job. That’s when financial stuff got hard,” Osborne said. “They do have resources, and they help people the best they can. And they really do reach out to people to help them, to see them to succeed,” he said of what GraceFull Café has given him.
Resources for shelter become a matter of life and death as the winter set in. It’s a worry Marilynne thinks about a lot this time of year.
“Every day, it's very frightening, scary in lots of ways. It's frustrating. Shelter is not affordable. Shelter, it's not plentiful. It's really difficult to try and be in at least a covered area, let alone protected, safe,” she said.
While there are shelters and more resources in downtown areas, Huizingh said many of her friends on the streets want to stay in the suburban communities and risk being out in the elements. On the coldest nights of the year, the Severe Weather Shelter network opens hotel rooms and churches to help those on the streets survive.
“They don't want to go downtown. It's a different setting, and they don't feel safe,” she said. “So, many of our friends that are on the streets here, don't feel safe to go downtown. And if they can't shelter with us, then they'll tell us literally, ‘Well, I'd rather freeze to death and go downtown.’”
That sentiment is why Huizingh works tirelessly to get as many people as she can into emergency housing on those freezing winter nights. She said this year is extremely tough because funding is limited and the need for shelter is greater than ever.
“The reality is that there will be people that we have to turn away even more this year than we did last year. So, that's heart-wrenching for us,” said Huizingh.
Huizingh is hoping with the Tri-Cities Homeless Action Plan comes more discussion of a shelter in her suburban community. At the very least, she is hoping a navigation center will help people get off the streets more quickly.
“Many people in the suburban communities don't want brick-and-mortar shelters in their communities, and I think part of it is that they just envision downtown and what that is, and they don't want that here. But it doesn't have to be like that, and that's not the plans that are on the table. People need a place to stabilize before they can become a functional part of society again, and that's their desire, just like anybody else's desire,” she said.
For those who have experienced homelessness themselves, they say all the effort shown by these community partners and the Tri-Cities Homeless Action Plan is encouraging.
“I'm perpetually hopeful,” Marilynne said.
“To see people that care, is to me, it's like the best thing,” said Eric, who through help from these community groups, was able to get on his feet and secure housing this year.
He said despite it being tough to access resources in one place in a suburban community, he did feel that the community organizations stepped up in an irreplaceable way for him. He said having shelter on the coldest nights from the Severe Weather Shelter Network was lifesaving.
“It’s awesome. You actually felt like a human being, you know, instead of not, and that the universe is listening to you, and there are people that care,” he said.
The leaders of these community groups, along with Marilynne and Eric, believe the key to a long-lasting solution is support from the rest of the community.
Marilynne asks those around her one simple thing: “Not to judge, not to condemn, but to try and facilitate a better life. You’re existing from minute to minute hoping and praying and striving to do better.”
“We’re all people,” Eric said. “It can be a little humiliating to be on the streets. But we're all people, and there's a lot of talent on the streets... not all druggies and alcoholics like everybody thinks are lazy. That's not true.”
“Homelessness is always going to exist, always,” Greenwood said. “That doesn't mean that we can't improve the lives of a lot of people.”
If you’d like to contribute to what these community organizations are doing to help, you can donate to Change the Trend, GraceFull Caféor the Severe Weather Shelter Network.
If you’d like more information on the Tri-Cities Homeless Action Plan addressing suburban homelessness, click HERE.