John Kenady climbs out of his 1977 four-tone Chevy van in a Longmont church parking lot, his leashed Rottweiler, Bella, and black-and-white cat, Robbie, in tow.
Several empty plastic bottles fall from the passenger seat of his overstuffed home on wheels, bouncing on to the pavement. Kenady picks them up and heads into the church for a hot meal and to use the bathroom — one of 11 homeless people using this parking lot as a secure overnight sleeping spot.
“It gives me a place to shower; it gives me a place to eat,” said the 67-year-old mechanic, who has been sidelined from work by a debilitating injury he sustained 20 years ago. “It’s great.”
Kenady is one of the faces of homelessness in metro Denver — living not on the streets or in a shelter but out of his vehicle. And he’s nowhere near the downtown Denver encampments most readily associated with people experiencing homelessness, but deep in the suburbs.
He’s been sleeping aside the church since June, when the SafeLot program was launched by HOPE, a homeless outreach organization in Longmont. A staff member with the organization stays each night at the church to ensure the safety of those parking there.
“It’s been full basically since we opened,” said Renee Ikemire, program manager with HOPE.
Yet, even with innovative concepts like “safe parking” to accommodate the increasing number of people lacking stable shelter in and around Denver, social service officials and homeless advocates worry that the ongoing coronavirus pandemic — with its devastating economic impacts — will stymie progress on getting and keeping people housed.
Of special concern is an eviction freeze — put in place in September by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in direct response to the pandemic — that’s scheduled to expire at the end of the year. Gov. Jared Polis earlier this month extended a statewide eviction moratorium for another 30 days.
“When (the federal) moratorium lifts, I think we’re going to see a huge wave of evictions,” said Cathy Alderman, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. “It’s going to be a flood of people entering homelessness.”
Between 150,000 and 230,000 households in the state could be at risk of eviction by Dec. 31, according to a report issued in October by Colorado’s Special Eviction Prevention Task Force, formed this summer by Polis through an executive order.
The pandemic-driven fallout is already hitting communities surrounding Denver, said Matt Meyer, executive director of the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative.
“The suburbs are now seeing an increase in visible homelessness,” he said.
Just last week, the Arapahoe County commissioners passed a measure to use up to $200,000 in Community Development Block Grant money to give hotel vouchers to people experiencing homelessness as part of an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
“Debt is crippling”
The Denver metro area has primarily counted its homeless population through the annual point-in-time survey — a one-night, on-the-street tally of those without shelter.
This year’s survey, conducted in late January, showed a steady increase in homelessness, from 5,317 in 2018 to 6,104 this year. There were noticeable surges in Douglas and Boulder counties, as well as in Aurora.
And all of that was before COVID-19 hit in March.
“I am fearful of the extent of homelessness in the suburbs,” said Daniel Brisson, executive director of the Center for Housing and Homelessness Research at the University of Denver. “I am worried that when our next counts of homelessness come out — in the suburbs, rural areas and in the cities — it will be considerably higher than previous counts.”
The point-in-time survey is subject to weather conditions and is limited by how many people choose to spend that night outside. The Metro Denver Homeless Initiative has produced a more comprehensive, first-of-its-kind “State of Homelessness” report, released last month.
The report shows that more than 31,200 people in metro Denver accessed services or housing supports related to homelessness from July 2019 through June 2020. It also found that there are nearly 13,000 students identified by school districts as experiencing homelessness.
And people of color are disproportionately affected by homelessness throughout the metro area.
Meanwhile, the unique challenges of a pandemic coupled with metro Denver’s already-high home costs — rents hit by COVID-19 earlier this year began inching back up in the most recent quarter — continue to wreak havoc on housing stability. An eviction moratorium doesn’t erase tenants’ financial obligations, even if they’re out of work because of the pandemic.
“They’re going to have accumulated a lot of back rent that needs to be paid, and they’re not going to have the means to do that,” Meyer said.
That’s a familiar situation to Cassie Ratliff, programs director of the homelessness program at Family Tree in Jefferson County. Not all of those without a home in the county are jobless, she said, but they are often employed in low-income work that doesn’t keep up with costs.
“I don’t know of anyone come January with $6,000 to pay the landlord,” Ratliff said. “We see people who have enough money to pay for a hotel room, but they can’t get out of that situation because everything goes to that. That debt is crippling.”
According to Jefferson County’s 2019 Comprehensive Homeless Count, the median home value in the county is 5.13 times greater than the median annual household income. That compares to a 3.71 multiplier for that same category in the United States as a whole.
“For income levels in Jefferson County to be compatible with housing costs, relative to the national average, the median annual household income in Jefferson County would need to increase 31%, from $85,890 to $112,421,” the report stated.
The county found in its count last summer that there were 997 people experiencing homelessness — 668 of whom met the federal government definition of literal homelessness, meaning they were in an emergency shelter, transitional housing or a place not meant for human habitation.
Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed as homeless in Jefferson County reported having a disabling condition, including a serious mental illness, disability, substance use disorder, HIV/AIDS, or chronic health problems.
Ratliff said the coronavirus pandemic turns those complications into a warning sign for further trouble as case numbers in Colorado mount.
“People who are homeless are extremely vulnerable — a lot of them have underlying issues and are older than 65,” she said.
New shelter in Aurora
Across town in Aurora, homelessness has received political attention of late. January’s point-in-time survey counted 427 people experiencing homelessness in Colorado’s third-largest city — up from 357 in 2018.
Mayor Mike Coffman has been vocal in his concern about Aurora’s burgeoning homeless encampments, tweeting photos last month of garbage-strewn areas in the city and saying he wants Aurora to be “more aggressive about closing down these encampments once we have an alternate place for them to go.”
Trash and Homeless Encampments pic.twitter.com/xZE3myhARy
— Mayor Mike Coffman (@AuroraMayorMike) October 12, 2020
Earlier this month, the city announced that it will open a winter emergency shelter with a capacity of 100 people and room for social distancing. The converted warehouse in northwest Aurora opens on Tuesday and will operate through April.
It will include a safe parking area and space for tents to accommodate those “who are not comfortable in an indoor congregate setting but still would like access to a secure area with services,” according to a city press release.
Aurora also held a virtual opening ceremony recently for the new 60-bed Renaissance Veterans Apartments at Fitzsimons, a permanent supportive housing unit for veterans.
While there’s been talk of enacting a camping ban in Aurora, as has happened in Denver, Boulder, Parker and Centennial, a formal proposal to do so has not been put forward. In the meantime, Aurora’s director of housing and community service, Jessica Prosser, said the city has tapped $3 million in federal COVID-19 pandemic money to help people out with mortgage and rent payments.
“What’s critical is to keep housed those who are already housed,” she said. “It’s more expensive to rehouse someone.”
At the state level, officials have spent $25 million of $33 million in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, money to help with rental and mortgage assistance across Colorado.
Alison George, , a top official with the Colorado Division of Housing, echoed Prosser’s thoughts on the importance of keeping people from losing a roof over their heads to begin with.
“All of these programs are focused on keeping people stably housed,” George said.
“Not quite home”
And there is help for those who no longer have permanent shelter, said Chelsey Baker-Hauck, co-founder of the Colorado Safe Parking Initiative.
The organization, whose goal is to establish areas for people to safely park and sleep overnight, launched this past spring. It has locations in Longmont, Arvada and Broomfield, with plans to expand southward. The Golden City Council recently discussed opening a safe parking site there, as well.
“Our hope is to continue scaling this up,” Baker-Hauck said. “This is a solution for a population that hasn’t been served well or fully. It’s tailored to individual needs, and the goal is to meet them where they are.”
The Colorado Safe Parking Initiative mostly works with churches willing to open their lots — just as it’s churches that have stepped up to allow sanctioned homeless encampments in Denver. Typically, a safe-parking site permits fewer than 10 cars, Baker-Hauck said, though the organization has to work with each city on zoning and other regulatory issues.
“These are hidden in plain sight,” she said of the parking sites.
Baker-Hauck said many of those facing homelessness in the suburbs have cars to get around transit-challenged areas but work service jobs that don’t cover the cost of permanent housing.
“These are the people working at your gas station or hustling on food delivery runs and then going back to their cars to sleep at night,” she said.
Then there is Kenady, who is too injured to work anymore. Calling Boulder County home for more than half a century, he said he has found respite wherever he can since becoming homeless — house sitting, couch surfing and sleeping in his van in whatever quiet spot he could find.
But he’s thankful for the safe parking program in Longmont, which has allowed him an extra measure of assurance and convenience as he drifts off every night.
“It’s not quite mom and dad’s house, but it’s close,” Kenady said.