This year, Hunger & Homelessness Awareness Week comes in the midst of a global pandemic. In the US, more than 43 million Americans live below the poverty level, and during COVID-19, 8 million more people have fallen below poverty lines. More than 1 in 5 children live in poverty. And each year 3.5 million people end up sleeping in parks, under bridges, in shelters, or in cars.
Living with hunger is a growing reality in the current climate, both nationally and in the Denver-metro area. We need to collectively take action to help those in need. To do that, it’s important to understand the leading causes of homelessness and the impact of laws and regulations on the community.
HOMELESSNESS IN DENVER
Even before COVID-19, the Denver-metro area has seen increasing rates of homelessness. The 2020 Point in Time Count from January 2020 shows 6,104 individuals experiencing homelessness either staying in shelters or living in unsheltered settings in Denver, Jefferson, Douglas, Adams, Arapahoe, Broomfield, and Boulder counties. Of the total counted, 4,171 were in Denver. This was an increase of 6% over 2019 and 12% in the last two years. And while those numbers are alarming, they are likely much lower than reality. They don’t include people living in motels, who are doubled up, who are sleeping in cars, or who didn’t want to answer the survey.
WHAT CONTRIBUTES TO HOMELESSNESS?
Unfortunately, people of color are overrepresented in those experiencing homelessness in the Denver-metro area, making up four times what would be expected from the breakdown of demographics of the general population. Systemic issues such as racism, economic disparities, the criminal justice system, healthcare access, and more lead to inequities at the heart of hunger and homelessness. Physical and/or mental disabilities, substance use, unemployment or underemployment, and various other challenges are part of the broader picture of homelessness. But a lack of affordable, accessible housing is the biggest issue.
Lack of affordable housing is the leading cause of homelessness, here and around the country.
According to the 2020 State of Homelessness report, Denver ranks second in the nation, only behind San Francisco-Oakland, as the most gentrified city in the United States. And median home values in Denver are ~5 times greater (3.71 for the US) than the median annual income of the average household. Households that put more than 30% of their income into mortgage payments or rent are in danger of having too little left over for other expenses or emergencies. In Denver, ~96,000 households fall into this category, making them at risk of experiencing hunger or homelessness.
A lost job or inability to find work compounds the situation.
An analysis from Columbia University found that homelessness could increase 40% to 45% by the end of 2020, based on the correlation between unemployment and homelessness. People struggling with rent and other expenses can really suffer when an emergency happens. (Like a job loss or a medical expense.) Financial pressure can quickly escalate and people can find themselves without a home even if they’re working full-time.
IMPACT OF LAWS & GOVERNMENT RESPONSES
Denver has come under criticism for its response to people experiencing homelessness, and zoning laws have made the problem worse. According to a CPR News article, “The Colorado Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that cities can’t force developers to include lower-cost housing units in new developments. The court found that the policy, known as ‘inclusionary zoning,’ qualifies as a form of rent control. This is illegal under state law.” The law has been one of the biggest barriers to affordable housing. Denver also relies on a shelter-first model, where more money goes to shelters instead of longer-term permanent and attainable housing.
The most controversial issue is around homeless encampments and sweeps. Denver has responded to the growing number of people forced to survive unsheltered with numerous sweeps over the last few years to clear encampments. But they aren’t offering encampment residents viable alternatives for transitional or permanent housing. Health risks arising from outdoor encampments also present serious public health issues. (Mainly lack of protection from the environment and no adequate access to hygiene/sanitation facilities.) But encampment sweeps don’t mitigate any of those hazards. They just move the problem somewhere else.
COVID-19 has only exacerbated these issues. The CDC recommends that encampments should be left in place to limit the spread of the virus. They recommend that cities encourage proper spacing of tents and provide access to clean water, portable bathrooms with handwashing facilities/hand sanitizer, and trash collection. So far, Denver hasn’t provided any of these services to encampments, and has even gone so far as to remove portable toilets provided by community organizations. There are efforts underway in Denver with government agencies and nonprofits to open sanctioned camping sites (called safe outdoor spaces) until the pandemic is over. So far, though, none have gotten off the ground.
HUNGER & HOMELESSNESS AWARENESS WEEK: ACTIONS YOU CAN TAKE
We are passionate about fighting hunger and homelessness throughout the year, not just during Hunger & Homelessness Awareness Week. Access to healthy food and affordable housing should be a basic right, not a privilege. We volunteer with several organizations who tackle hunger, including Metro Caring, The Growhaus, and Foodbank of the Rockies. This work includes gathering donations and making meals for people experiencing homelessness. And we donate leftovers from company gatherings to shelters or give them to people on the streets.
One of our Wordbankers experienced temporary homelessness as a child due to an eviction. The lack of security left an impact that has made her passionate about this issue. She saw first-hand how a struggling family can get behind and end up homeless in an instant.
Another Wordbanker regularly attends city encampment sweeps to act as a witness, to provide support to those experiencing displacement, and to donate items. She’s noticed an increase in the amount of people who are recently homeless due to COVID-19 layoffs. She’s seen the struggle of people who have lost possessions during sweeps, many times the only things they have left. If any sort of syringe is found (or claimed to be found, whether for medical purposes or not) in an unattended tent, all of a person’s possessions and survival gear are seized and destroyed. These stories – and others – have made us passionate advocates for change.
Here are some ways you can help in Denver:
Donate and connect with mutual aid groups.
Assist in providing food, clothing, water, camping equipment, sanitation items, household items, etc.
Educate yourself and others.
Host your own Hunger & Homelessness Awareness Week or attend local events. Share humanizing information on social media. Talk to and educate friends and family.
Get involved in advocacy work.
To laws, news, and to the people you see on the streets. Make eye contact. Let them know you see them and give them that human connection.
Participate in local, state, and national elections. And continue to hold your elected officials accountable after they take office.
We should treat people experiencing homelessness with compassion and dignity. Involvement in our communities means caring for each other and “seeing” people as they truly are. Too many of us walk past our unhoused neighbors on the street with averted eyes and turned heads. A gesture as simple as making eye contact and smiling provides a moment of respect and connection on the most basic human level. We also need to face the fact that homelessness is likely going to get worse. We need to take steps now to address root causes such as affordable housing, barriers to employment, health care access, and criminal justice reform.