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Survey: Marijuana not a driving factor for rising homeless population 

click to enlarge There are far more concerning drugs than weed. - FILE PHOTO
  • File photo
  • There are far more concerning drugs than weed.

Homelessness is on the rise in Colorado Springs and anecdotally, we often hear that legal marijuana drives the trend. The implication is twofold. First, that poor people move here to access their drug of choice. Second, that getting high leads to people losing jobs and then houses.

But the data tell a different story. Results from this year's U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-required Point-in-Time survey, otherwise known as the county's "homeless headcount," came out earlier this month, adding to our limited hard numbers on the subject. This year's results show the majority of people living on the county's streets last resided in El Paso County, with only 28 percent coming from out of state. And, according to U.S. Census and PIT figures, the total rate of general statewide population growth is greater than the rate of homeless population growth. All that would seem to debunk the "they're moving here in droves" narrative.

But the PIT has limitations. It doesn't ask people how long they lived in the area before becoming homeless, for instance. And, even if it did, knowing where someone came from doesn't tell the whole story of why he or she is living on the streets. In the absence of really good data, people make assumptions. Asked why the perception that marijuana has caused an increase in homelessness is so widespread, Donald Burnes, a poverty expert at University of Denver's School of Social Work, told Denverite.com, "There is no doubt that there is an increase in the numbers of homeless, not a large increase, but some increase over the last several years, and it tends to coincide with the 2012 ballot decision and 2014 actual legalization. It becomes an easy target."

Marijuana isn't totally irrelevant to the situation. People, regardless of housing status, are motivated by myriad factors. Why move to Colorado? Well, the economy's good, the weather is nice and mountains are cool. Legal marijuana, to those who like to partake, is another happy perk.

"If someone has a propensity to smoke, and they know they're not going to get in trouble for it here, it makes sense it would come into the equation," reasons Shawna Kemppainen, executive director of Urban Peak Colorado Springs, the only homeless shelter for youth in town. "It's not very frequent that we hear someone moves here specifically because of legalization, but when we do it's almost always related to wanting a job in the industry."

But newcomers are often surprised to find that the marijuana industry has plenty of applicants for every position and tends to hire those with experience. Unlike other industries, marijuana businesses aren't allowed to hire someone with a prior drug offense.

Kemppainen says that for Urban Peak youth, marijuana use is more often a barrier to employment than a helper. And it can also be a barrier to housing.

Kemppainen reckons a healthy majority of Urban Peak youth partake, but they're not allowed in the shelter if they're currently high (since they are underage). Often, that means taking a walk for an hour or two, with a bed guaranteed if they come back sober.

"Substance abuse is both a cause and a result of homelessness, and once you're out on the street, you're going to seek things that comfort you," she says. "Marijuana might be that thing, but often they seek out things more powerful than that."

Heroin, opioids and other prescription drug use is on the rise, Kemppainen notes, and that should be far more concerning.

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