Homelessness in the suburbs can be hard to see.
Brian Veatch of the South Metro Fire Rescue Authority has spotted it in the wee hours. A few years ago he got a call one morning at about 1:30 about a man in distress. The man could not quite explain what was wrong. Veatch was able to make a diagnosis.
“He was cold,” said Veatch, who after a few moments of discussion learned the man had recently been released from the Arapahoe County Detention Center and had nowhere to go.
The pandemic hit shortly after Veatch began working with a former public defender and others to find shelter and housing for people experiencing homelessness, with a special emphasis on those who have been caught up in the justice system. To ease the crowding that allowed disease to spread, jails across the country began releasing people awaiting trial on low-level or nonviolent charges, as well as defendants whose age or health put them at high risk of the worst affects of the coronavirus. Suddenly, a bigger problem was facing Veatch and colleagues, who included social worker Lindsay Bendell; former public defenders Gina Shimeall and Jennifer Longtin; and Ali Moaddeli of the mental health nonprofit AllHealth Network. Moaddeli supervises staff who support defendants who have been released from custody after being found incompetent to face trial.
The group founded Solutions for Achieving Fast, Effective Response, or SAFER, to address homelessness in suburbs that don’t have Denver’s shelters and other resources. Members have used their own money to secure rooms for people at a hotel south of Denver managed by Neza Bharucha. Bharucha said she did not have permission from the chain for which she works to name her hotel.
Bharucha is in the final year of a psychiatry residency at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. Last year she learned during a rotation at Denver Health that the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless needed hotel rooms for people it was supporting.
“I said, ‘Hey, I manage this hotel,'” Bharucha said. She has been quietly renting to people experiencing homelessness since then.
Bharucha said she has seen people leave her hotel for stable housing.
“It’s successful for the people that want to be here and want to move out of this space in their lives,” she said. “A lot of the people, they’ve been through so much trauma.”
She’s had to ask some guests to leave for failing to follow rules that ban such behavior as smoking or drug use in the rooms, having visitors, or treating her staff poorly.
Bharucha said the experience has taught her something that her psychiatric training had not: “I can’t help anyone who doesn’t want to help themselves.”
Shimeall, of SAFER, said she saw many defendants struggling with mental illness and homelessness during her 19 years as a public defender in the 18th Judicial District, which includes Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert, and Lincoln counties. After retiring as a public defender, Shimeall helped create the Arapahoe County Mental Health Court to provide treatment and support such as housing to stop a cycle in which people with mental illnesses serve time in prison only to be released and commit more crimes.
Homelessness is often seen as an urban, not a suburban crisis. But increasingly, suburban communities are acknowledging they have overlooked the issue.
Last summer, Jefferson County conducted its first comprehensive count of homelessness and found 997 people living on the streets, in shelters or in transitional or unstable housing. That was more than double the 434 people found unhoused in the county during the more typical one-day count in January known as the Point in Time. In all, 668 of those 997 experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity in Jeffco in August met a narrower definition of homelessness used for the Point in Time. (The Point in Time, for example, does not count someone who has for financial reasons moved in with a friend or relative as experiencing homelessness.)
Schools also use a broader homelessness definition for separate counts compiled over the course of the academic year. The district serving the city of Aurora counted 1,939 students as housing insecure during the 2018-’19 school year. The district serving students in Adams and Broomfield counties counted 1,852. Denver counted 1,849.
This week, Bharucha opened her hotel’s parking lot to SAFER, local political leaders, service providers and organizations that included Change the Trend, a network of nonprofits, churches and others that addresses and raises awareness about homelessness in Englewood, Littleton, and Sheridan. Pamphlets were set out on tables. Speakers included Sue Sanders, who has found shelter at Bharucha’s hotel.
Sanders’s is not a story of mental illness or drug addiction. In a region where housing costs have for years risen faster than wages, Sanders had to leave her apartment after the rent rose to more than her monthly disability payments of about $1,000. Sanders, who has worked as an administrative assistant, lived in her car for more than two years. In recent months, she has received vouchers and other aid that has allowed her to stay at hotels. She is on several wait lists for housing she can afford. She’s been told she might have to wait years more.
Shimeall said the event was a chance for hotel guests who have experienced homelessness to connect with services that might lead to stable housing. Veatch, her SAFER colleague, added that they wanted community members and leaders “to open up dialogue, have conversations and see what the need is.”
“I feel like we’re all one step from being unhoused,” Veatch said. “And the pandemic has certainly revealed that.”
Shimeall said, “We are one community and we really have to see our whole community.”