This Valentine’s Day, as many of us were snuggled up indoors, an Arctic blast swept down through the nation. In Texas, millions went for days without power because of energy shortages, all while one of the state’s senators, Ted Cruz, was headed to enjoy a well-deserved vacation in sunny Cancun. Last week The New York Times reported “the county government in coastal Galveston called for refrigerated trucks to hold the bodies they expect to find in freezing, powerless houses.”
It’s events like this one that provide a crude reminder of the “death sentence” extreme weather can be for the unhoused. And many scientists have predicted irreversible consequences from climate change in the next decade. Catastrophic weather events are becoming the norm.
But we don’t need to be reminded that growing income disparities and housing shortages are literally costing lives. These problems, amplified by COVID-19, have been issues for decades. But because the images we most often see are of unhoused addicts or those suffering from mental illness, some conclude houselessness is the result of an individual’s bad choices, that there’s nothing we can do but keep them from pissing on sidewalks and move them out of sight, or develop programs to get them “ready” (only if they truly want it) for employment and housing. But some of these “fixes,” which further stigmatize the houseless, simply don’t work because the only long-term solution is providing a stable place to live for houseless adults, families and youths.
In 2020, Metro Denver Housing Initiative (MDHI) issued a State of Homelessness report covering Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Broomfield, Denver, Douglas and Jefferson counties. The report highlighted the growing racial disparity among the homeless.
The report includes a Point in Time (PIT) from Jan. 27, 2020, that shows 1,446 individuals represented 421 households, and 37 percent were newly houseless as compared to 4 percent who were chronically houseless. Newly houseless youths represented 21 percent compared to 36 percent chronically houseless youths.
The MDHI report provides a broader understanding of the complexities and nuances of homelessness. The report says that “the top reasons of homelessness in the region are high housing costs, a lost job or inability to find work, and relationship or family break up … and a lack of affordable housing.” It’s a critical look at systems and policies (or lack thereof) that contribute to the problem, instead of simply blaming the individual.
One hard truth: Compared to their numbers among Denver’s general population, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) are grossly overrepresented among the houseless. For instance, according to MDHI, Black/African Americans make up 23.5 percent of Denver’s homeless based on PIT data, but they make up just 5.3 percent of the city’s general population.
Here in the Springs, Valentine’s Day temps reached a record-breaking -12 degrees. It’s hard to imagine anyone being able to endure that unsheltered. Our last PIT survey, released in January 2020, showed a 17 percent decrease in homelessness compared to the previous year. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, changed the way 2021’s count was conducted, but it’s also hard to imagine that, due to the economic impacts of COVID-19, the number has not grown significantly. Evan Caster from Pikes Peak Continuum of Care (PPCoC) told The Gazette in January that agencies are “moving toward tracking the numbers on a monthly basis for all homeless populations, with the goal of improving services.”
As the city experiences skyrocketing growth, there are still those falling through the cracks. Are we willing to answer hard questions that will impact real people? We have to, or the housing crisis will only grow worse.
Disclosure: Patience Kabwasa is a board member of the Pikes Peak
Continuum of Care.