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Homelessness in La Plata County

March 2018

How many persons are experiencing homeless in La Plata County?

It is very challenging to quantify the number of persons experiencing homelessness in a community. However, our local service providers do tract clients served who are experiencing homelessness and can help us develop an estimate of need.

Every January local providers go out for one night and survey persons living on the streets or in emergency shelters (formally referred to as the Point in Time (PIT) count). In January of 2017, local providers counted 52 persons experiencing homelessness in Southwest Colorado as part of the PIT count; it is common practice to assume that the actual population that is experiencing homelessness is 2.5 to 3 times the official count number; or between 120-150 persons for southwest Colorado in 2017. Although 2018 numbers are not available we only anticipate a small increase in these numbers.

The Sheriff’s Department reports 24-35 campers in the winter months and three times that number of campers in the summer months. Manna Soup kitchen serves roughly 65,000 meals annually in La Plata County. The community shelter served close to 530 individuals and provided 10,359 shelter bed nights in 2016. Housing Solutions for the Southwest manages a rapid rehousing program and estimates that each month they see 15 clients that would qualify for PSH units.

In summary, we estimate that between 350-400 persons are experience homelessness in La Plata County currently.

Who typically experiences homelessness?

Those without housing are single men and women, families, children, workers--they span the demographics of our country. In 2013, 46.2 million people were in poverty, up from 39.8 million in 2009. As of 2013, families with children comprised 33% of the homeless, with proportions higher in rural areas. Families with children are averaging 6-12 months in shelters before any other housing is found. Two-thirds of the single homeless are male of every race, and the single population accounts for three-quarters of all homeless Nationally, nearly half of all women and children experiencing homelessness have fled from domestic violence, and this number has remained consistent for more than a decade.

Homelessness is increasing among aged persons because of the declining availability of affordable housing and increased general poverty.

What can we do to decrease homelessness?

We solve homelessness with transitional and permanent affordable housing options and accompanying supportive service models. These are evidenced-based solutions to ending homelessness, and if we can coordinate and expand resources as a community, we can increase programs and services and decrease the incidences of homelessness. Community best practices for addressing homelessness begins with creating a strategic plan to develop a range of housing options; from emergency and rapid rehousing to transitional programs and permanent supportive housing. Shelters are also needed; they provide an immediate option for safe shelter while housing is being located. In communities that do not have adequate shelter options it is becoming more common to see managed encampment programs.

Communities also need a wide range of services including employment programs, behavioral health services, and substance abuse treatment programs and services. More funding for services will help to expand current programs and connect them to services in order to keep people housed.

But if we provide better services won’t it attract more people experiencing homelessness here?

Conditions in our own communities create and sustain homelessness. It is easy to claim that persons experiencing homelessness are "outsiders." And while some persons who are homeless move around to find jobs and housing, many are scared to leave their own familiar communities, are unable to move because of physical or mental difficulties, or do not have the financial means to move. Persons experiencing homelessness seek safe and affordable housing just as we do, and maintain the same freedoms we all share in being able to seek better opportunities.

The issue of homelessness is insurmountable in any community, why bother?

Evidence from other communities across the country suggests otherwise. There is a growing national consensus that homelessness can be solved with the right plan, the right approach, and enough funding. As encouraged by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, many communities have enacted 10-year plans to end homelessness, which spells out what is needed to end homelessness instead of "managing" it.

Ending a complex problem like homelessness requires a commitment from all members of our community: government officials, philanthropies, faith and civic groups, businesses including small business owners, housing and service providers, and concerned individuals. Through developing a community plan we take the first critical steps to ending homelessness for our most vulnerable neighbors.

Not all persons experiencing homelessness deserve services, right?

Everyone desires access to housing and services; and its’ easier to advocate for them when we understand and share the notion that homelessness can truly happen to anyone. Government policy affects homelessness more than any other factor. All of the following elements are policy decisions that can decrease homelessness: building more single room occupancy (SRO) and low-income housing units; raising the minimum wage; increasing the number of affordable day-care centers for low-income children; providing enough municipal emergency shelters; allowing congregations and other non-governmental organizations to provide shelters without restrictive regulations.

Anyone can become homeless if they are forced into unemployment with no financial cushion, must immediately leave a domestic violence situation, are laid off with no unemployment insurance, fall ill or become injured and can't qualify for disability, or become incapacitated due to mental illness. Being homeless is a condition, not a character flaw.

Don’t Some People Choose to Be Homeless?

A homeless life is not a comfortable one. Few choose a lifestyle that can be quite unhealthy, is often dangerous, stressful, and humiliating, and invites the abuse that people on the streets receive from others in their communities. Some people experiencing homelessness choose to sleep on the streets rather than in shelters because they are unsettled by shelter conditions and noise or do not qualify for their services. Very few would choose the streets over a residence they could call home. Certainly, children do not choose homelessness, nor do victims of domestic violence, which is the leading cause of homelessness in women.

Persons experiencing homeless are alcoholics or drug addicts; they refuse to stop and can’t be helped right?

Estimates are about one-quarter to one-third of the homeless population are or have been substance abusers or addicts. Many are dually diagnosed, which means that they suffer from mental illness as well, making it harder for them to cope with their addictions. If they have become homeless due to factors other than addiction, they may turn to alcohol or drugs to ease the pain of their lives, just as the housed do.

However, because they usually live their lives in public, they cannot hide their addictions, as those with housing can do. Street outreach is underfunded and understaffed; help remains insufficient. Those with substance abuse issues can be housed and it’s in the best interest of our community to provide them housing.

Housing First is a nationally recognized program intervention that says if you provide persons with housing first, and augment it with support services, even those who have been experiencing homelessness for decades (termed the chronically homeless) can remain housed and lead healthier lives. Housing First is delivered through the provision of permanent supportive housing; a model that provides affordable apartments accompanied with robust behavioral health services.

These models were developed over 25 years ago in New York City and are now recognized nationally as the best practice for the hardest to serve clients on the streets. The best part of this model is that supportive housing programs cost between $9,000 and $12,000 a year. Conversely, many persons experiencing homelessness use jails, emergency systems, detox programs and outpatient services and can cost a community between $26,000-$35,000 a year. Furthermore, many of the funds for housing are already available at the state level.