Trump’s homelessness official questioned housing-first in Denver, and that didn’t sit well with some local providers

“There was no ask from him. This was him giving us information.”

Denver Homeless Out Loud activist Jerry Burton speaks at a Feb. 21, 2020 protest of a visit to Denver by  Robert Marbut,  executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. (Donna Bryson/Denverite)

Denver Homeless Out Loud activist Jerry Burton speaks at a Feb. 21, 2020 protest of a visit to Denver by  Robert Marbut,  executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. (Donna Bryson/Denverite)

Donna Bryson. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

The top Trump administration official focused on homelessness brought his calls for reform to Denver and was met with protests, with local service providers arguing his approach is judgmental and narrow.

In a telephone interview Monday, Robert Marbut, who late last year became executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, said he has been traveling the country stressing that services like mental health care and drug rehabilitation must be a requirement for housing those experiencing homelessness. He said local communities can help bring down the costs of housing by taking steps like cutting development fees.

Marbut said he made those points in meetings in Denver last week with city and state officials and with private and public providers of housing, health care, job counseling and other support. Marbut said he also walked Denver’s streets to see what homelessness looks like here, and would be back for more conversations and observations next month.

His two-day visit prompted a protest on the steps of the City and County Building organized by the advocacy group Denver Homeless Out Loud, which said in a statement that “Marbut does not believe in housing-first but instead believes all homeless individuals have to be ‘fixed’ before they deserve housing.”

Julie Patiño, director of basic human needs for the Denver Foundation, joined the Denver Homeless Out Loud protest Friday, taking the bullhorn to accuse Marbut of operating on the belief that homelessness results from a “personal failing” of those who are on the streets.

Marbut said the Trump administration wants to get people not only housed but out of “the entire homelessness assistance system.” Marbut said that when domestic violence, mental health, substance abuse and other issues he called “catalytic” events are unaddressed, people end up back on the streets.

Matt Meyer, executive director of the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative, attended a meeting Marbut held with service providers.

“I find that housing-first has not meant that services haven’t been available or delivered,” Meyer said. “I think that’s the great success in metro Denver.”

Meyer said Marbut did not ask service providers in the Denver area to change their approach. “There was no ask from him,” Meyer said. “This was him giving us information.”

Marbut said he has not spent enough time in Denver to know whether what he sees as national failings in the approach to homelessness are also problems here. But he said that when service providers explain their offerings, he wants to know if they are required or incentivized and whether the programs are tracked.

“I’m a big believer in, ‘What gets measured, gets done,’” Marbut said.

Marbut said before Trump took office, the federal government stopped requiring service providers to offer support before housing.

Christina Carlson, whose Urban Peak serves teens and young adults who are experiencing homelessness, also attended the meeting with Marbut.  She said the federal official presented a “broad overview” of his thinking.

“I think housing-first has a lot of strengths and it does a lot to support individuals experiencing homelessness,” Carlson added.

She said ending homelessness will take a multifaceted approach, making it important for people to be able to share ideas. She said the dialogue was respectful at the meeting with Marbut.

“All of us, locally, in the state, nationally, the more we can collaborate and share best practices, the better,” she said.

Denver’s signature housing-first program began in 2016, when the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless and the Mental Health Center of Denver starting using police arrest data to identify people experiencing chronic homelessness and funneling them into housing, offering health, food, transportation, legal and other support. Investors in the program, which included organizations with social missions, help fund the program and in return get payments from the city for each day a participant is housed and not in jail. The model is called a social impact bond. The city is betting payments to investors will be less than what it spends providing emergency room services and jailing people experiencing chronic homelessness. Research led by the Urban Institute indicates initial results are promising.

Marbut said social impact bond programs across the country are “very innovative. We like those, how they work.”

His visit to Denver included a tour of housing that the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless provides as part of the social impact bond and discussions with residents about services they’ve received. Cathy Alderman, vice president of communications and public policy for the coalition, said the tour and the meeting with service providers was a chance to make clear her organization’s position that: “Housing-first really does work.”

Alderman said that if big changes to the nation’s approach on homelessness are being contemplated, “we want to make sure that we’re at the table and providing as much information as possible.”

Service providers in Denver have found that not everyone who is unhoused needs much more than housing. That has led some to be more flexible, for example easing curfews at transitional housing facilities to accommodate people who are working swing shifts. The city’s housing department and service providers are revamping Denver’s shelters to make them more responsive and supportive.

In two tweets the day after Marbut’s visit, Britta Fisher, head of the city’s housing department, cited passages from “Journeys Out of Homelessness.” The book, released earlier this year, is by two Denver-area researchers who found lessons on ending homelessness from people who have experienced it. Among those profiled in the book is Michelle McHenry-Edrington, an Air Force veteran who lost housing in 2011 after running into difficulties obtaining financial aid from her school.

In one tweet, Fisher quoted from a passage in which McHenry-Edrington said: “There is something about the nature of a system of the people saying they are there to help you and yet they are the very ones causing you agony … I could not get them to understand I only needed shelter until I completed my education.”

In the second, McHenry-Edrington continued:  “And that none of my behavior caused me to lose my home.”

Fisher did not refer to Marbut in her tweets. A day earlier, the housing department said in a statement that Fisher and James Ginsburg, a deputy director in the housing department, had a private meeting with Marbut at the request of his U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. Fisher added in that statement: “It takes a community response, with a wide array of partners to work toward ensuring that all experiences of homelessness are temporary, brief, and a one-time occurrence. As Denver expands its investments and critical supports to better connect people in need with housing and services, I’m pleased to have had the opportunity to meet with our federal partners.”

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