Homeless families in Denver are silently suffering from the economic strains of the coronavirus

The city and service providers have brought forth new ideas for individuals experiencing homelessness. But no such innovation has been applied to families.
13 min. read
Stephanie Benites stands outside of the HomeTowne Studios motel room in Lakewood, one of the motels where she’s been staying with her fiancé and daughter since they left Arizona fearing eviction. July 11, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Stephanie Benites didn't want her family to be homeless in Arizona.

She lost her job as a cashier at a campus restaurant after Arizona State University moved classes online in March. The warehouse that employed her fiancé shut down after a co-worker fell ill with COVID-19. While Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey had issued an executive order keeping law enforcement officers from carrying out evictions of people affected by the pandemic, Benites said her landlord was pestering the couple, who have a 14-year-old daughter, to leave because they fell behind on the rent before unemployment benefits started coming through.

Benites, who had experienced homelessness before, remembered shelters in the Tempe area as crowded. She didn't want to live on the streets or in a car in the desert heat and feared the consequences of the Arizona governor's mid-May termination of stay-at-home orders. (Restrictions on businesses have since been reimposed following a coronavirus surge in the state.)

"There's no point in staying in Arizona," Benites recalled thinking. "There's no jobs. Our landlord's probably going to kick us out on the street."

Benites and her fiancé had long dreamed of moving to Colorado, believing the climate and prospects for jobs and education were better. The pandemic, which Benites said Colorado's governor has addressed with more caution than Arizona's, pushed them to pack up their car and leave.

The family arrived two months ago in the Denver area. But what they have found hasn't been encouraging. Though Colorado and Denver are fairing better than other cities and states dealing with COVID-19 spikes, local service providers are still being stretched by challenges brought on by the coronavirus. New shelters have opened for single men and women in Denver, increasing accessibility to services they need. But housing and other options for homeless families remain where they were before the pandemic, if not scaled back. Meanwhile, providers said the need among that group has grown.

Stephanie Benites stands outside of the HomeTowne Studios motel room in Lakewood, one of the motels where she's been staying with her fiancé and daughter since they left Arizona fearing eviction. July 11, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Once they arrived in Denver and started looking for housing and employment, Benites and her fiancé quickly used up their savings on a motel room and car repairs. Benites searched the internet, reaching out to organizations such as Volunteers of America and Catholic Charities for help.

"That's how resourceful I am," Benites said.

Volunteers of America provided a motel room. Later the nonprofit Family Promise of Great Denver stepped in with another motel room and support from a case worker. Benites, meanwhile, got a job at the airport. She'd done her research before moving and knew the minimum wage for airport workers in Denver is $14 -- set to rise to $15 next year -- compared to a $12 minimum wage in Arizona.

But even before the pandemic, minimum wage (or a few dollars above it) wouldn't have gotten Benites far. Across the country, housing prices have risen faster than wages, contributing to a widespread housing crisis.

"It doesn't make sense how they keep hiking up the rent," Benites said.

She found a one-bedroom apartment for $875 a month -- a bit less than what she was paying for a one-bedroom back in Arizona -- in an income-restricted complex in Lakewood. It's within her family's single-earner budget while her fiancé continues to look for work. Benites is hoping a homelessness service provider can help with the deposit and other moving-in costs before her family has to move out of the motel where they have been staying since early June.

"The uncertainty is stressful," she said.

Stephanie Benites stands outside of the HomeTowne Studios motel room in Lakewood, one of the motels where she's been staying with her fiancé and daughter since they left Arizona fearing eviction. July 11, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Courtney Jensen, executive director of Family Promise of Greater Denver, said before the pandemic, a hotel or motel voucher the city issued typically lasted for 14 days. Some families were hearing that longer stays were possible because of the pandemic, but Jensen said that has been hard to pin down whether that's true.

"If we as an organization can't get information (from city officials), it's going to be 10 times harder for families," Jensen said. "Understanding the processes of all the different agencies is difficult."

Derek Woodbury, spokesman for Denver's housing department, said the longest the city will pay for a family to stay in a hotel or motel within a 12-month period is 14 nights, but that exceptions are sometimes made when the weather is cold or when it's clear that a family can get into more stable housing but needs extra time to move. Britta Fisher, who heads Denver's housing department, said she's working toward getting families into hotel and motel rooms set aside for people affected by the pandemic, and that stays would be open-ended in those cases. Fisher acknowledged the criteria that determines how long a family can stay in a hotel or motel room can be difficult to communicate.

Jensen said 14 nights "is never long enough for a family to secure more stable housing."

"It has been even harder for families to secure housing during the pandemic," she said. "Organizations have altered their programming, apartment units were not showing units, and some programs were not accepting new families due to COVID. It often takes months for families to secure longer-term housing, and the pandemic has just increased the time frames."

Family Promise staff are working from home, trying to support families via Zoom, phone or email. But the online system presents challenges, since it's easier for case workers to answer questions and make sure their guidance is understood when meetings are in person.

Before the pandemic, Family Promise used a network of places of worship where volunteers created private or semi-private spaces in meeting or class rooms to shelter families. But after churches closed to stop the spread of the coronavirus, Family Promise started moving families into hotels or motels instead.

"There's never a ton of immediate options for families," Jensen said.

The Salvation Army's Lambuth Family Center, in Sloan's Lake, is technically an emergency shelter. Families can stay up to 90 days in private rooms, each with a bathroom. Even in normal times, it's rare for a room to be open.

"We only have 20 rooms, so we are full all the time," said Kristen Baluyot, the Salvation Army's Denver metro social services director. "If we had 80 rooms or units, I expect we would be full."

Before the coronavirus, the Salvation Army had been seeing an increase in families experiencing homelessness. Because of the demand, The Lambuth Family Center decreased the amount of time families could stay in the private rooms from two years to 90 days.

Since the pandemic struck, Baluyot said unemployment has undermined the stability of families that her organization had been able to move into homes. Families who before the pandemic were already receiving aid from the Salvation Army will likely need more support in the coming months.

"The world crashed, and they are not able to pay anything for rent," Baluyot said. "They don't have savings. They don't have the social network to keep them in housing."

But there are still occasional successes, she said. In May, members of the Denver Street Outreach Collaborative, a project that involves the city and nonprofits, spotted a child no older than five who was part of a family living in an encampment near the Salvation Army's Crossroads shelter.

"It's very rare to see a little child in these camps," Baluyot said.

Alerted by the outreach workers, the Salvation Army scrambled to find room at Lambuth, but the family wanted permanent housing instead. The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless was able to provide an apartment in one of its complexes.

"We were able to surround that family and get them where they needed to go,"  Baluyot said.

Cathy Alderman, vice president of communications and public policy for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, said the safety net is stretched thin.

"We don't have enough family shelters," Alderman said. "We don't have enough family resources."

The city considers hotel and motel rooms its main emergency response for families, and can accommodate up to 70 families at any given time. Thirty vouchers are provided for the Volunteers of America Family Motel, and the remaining forty go to other hotels. Amy Fidelis, a spokesperson for the city, said in previous years the capacity has been closer to 35 families, but that figure went up last fall after City Council added $1 million to the budget for vouchers in 2020.

Fidelis said the other emergency shelters in Denver -- Lambuth, Catholic Charities's Samaritan House, Family Promise, Family Homestead and Sacred Heart House -- usually have waiting lists.

It's a regional problem. In neighboring Adams County, the nonprofit Growing Home had a project similar to Family Promise's, offering families experiencing homelessness temporary shelter in a network of churches. But in recent years, Growing Home had struggled to find and retain congregations and has filled the gap with hotel rooms, an expensive option. Months before the pandemic struck, Growing Home shut down its emergency family shelter program to focus instead on preventing homelessness by, for example, helping families with emergency rental assistance. Growing Home also has a large food pantry.

Karen Fox Elwell, president and CEO of Growing Home, said that if it were still offering shelter, she is not sure her small nonprofit would be able to meet the housing needs she has seen. Growing Home has focused since the coronavirus on feeding families, more of whom are reporting they are experiencing homelessness when they come to the pantry. Many smaller pantries were based in churches, which shut down because of the coronavirus. (Some of the smaller pantries have shut down because they were managed by volunteers who were older and had to quarantine themselves because they were at greater risks of serious illness related to COVID-19.)

Growing Home has gone from 10 to 20 households visiting its pantry every day before the pandemic to 50 to 85. While Growing Home has focused on food,  it has referred families to the Adams County housing authority, known as Maiker Housing Partners, for rental assistance.

"Partnership has been essential to our work," Fox Elwell said.

With an initial $300,000 grant from the Adams County Foundation, Adams County in April set up a rental and mortgage relief fund for households affected by the pandemic. Maiker, which owns a dozen affordable apartment complexes in Adams County, redeployed staff to take applications from people seeking rental assistance. Applicants need not be Maiker tenants.

"We quickly said, 'If not us, who?'" said Peter LiFari, Maiker's executive director, explaining that rental assistance is a way to keep families from becoming homeless.

It takes time to check documents to determine whether families meet the requirements -- proving that their income has been hurt by COVID-19, for example -- to get rental assistance. Linnea Bjorkman, who has been overseeing the rental assistance project for Maiker, said some applicants have to go to homes of friends or neighbors for internet access or to use a smart phone to make a copy of a document. It can take three or four email exchanges to complete an application, and Bjorkman has lost touch with some people before the process was finished.

As of late June, Maiker had distributed more than $150,000 in rental assistance, writing 146 checks. But more than 400 applications were pending, said Drew O'Connor, Maiker's deputy director.

"I always explain to (clients) that we're behind because of the volume of applications," Bjorkman said. "People are really frustrated."

Service providers, lawmakers and the public often focus on single adults, often men, sitting on street corners asking for handouts or gathering in encampments such as the one near Crossroads.

In April, following a mid-March declaration of a coronavirus emergency, Denver established two large shelters that are open around the clock. The city had been considering 24-hour emergency shelter service before the pandemic, but COVID-19 accelerated its plans. One for men is now operated by the Denver Rescue Mission at the National Western Complex, and one for women and transgender individuals is run by Catholic Charities of Denver at the nearby Coliseum. People who go to those shelters and are found to be at high risk of serious consequences if they contract COVID-19 or are otherwise impacted by the pandemic are diverted to some of the hundreds of hotel and motel rooms the city and service providers have secured since the coronavirus was first detected in Denver.

Last month, Mayor Michael Hancock announced he was reversing his long-held opposition to sanctioned camping for people experiencing homelessness. The first such city-approved camp, to be managed by a nonprofit and offering services such as bathrooms and showers, is expected to open soon. Most of its tents will be for single people, but some are for couples, who had not before been accommodated in the city's emergency shelter system.

But no such innovative thinking has been applied to homeless families, partially because they make up less of the overall homeless population. According to the 2019 Point in Time survey, which gives a snapshot of homelessness, only 798 people in family groups -- defined as including at least one adult and one person younger than 18 years -- were among the 3,943 people experiencing homelessness on any given night. In the 2020, conducted before the pandemic, that went up to 1,446 individuals in family groups among 6,104 people experiencing homelessness. (It should be noted that Point in Time surveyers can't find everyone experiencing homelessness.)

Families are especially likely to avoid being counted, in part because parents fear that drawing attention from officials could lead to their children being taken away. They go to motels, where they would not be counted as homeless under the Point in Time's definition if they are paying their own way, even if their resources were close to being depleted. Moving in with relatives or friends, another strategy to which families often turn, is also considered stable housing under the Point in Time. But families in such situations could easily end up unhoused if, for example, a landlord discovers more people are in an apartment than allowed under a lease. Putting off asking for help can mean families are in an especially dire position when their plight does come to the attention of an aid agency.

Families in homelessness "are a hidden population," said Anna Theisen, who manages a Denver Public Schools program that supports students experiencing homelessness.

Point in Time surveyers have just one 24-hour period every year to assess homelessness. Teachers and other school staff have the time and close relationships necessary to better assess the problem. Theisen said 2,197 students in her district had been identified as experiencing homelessness over the past school year. She expects next year's count to be higher because of COVID-19's impact on many families in her district.

"We are very worried about what August is going to look like," Theisen said.

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