Small encampments along a nearby jogging path. A sleeping bag tucked under a bridge. The car parked in the far corner of the grocery store parking lot.
There, often just out of the public’s sight, are the homeless of Jefferson …
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There, often just out of the public’s sight, are the homeless of Jefferson County.
“It’s hidden in Jefferson County,” Kathryn Otten, the county’s director of housing, homeless and integration, said of the homeless population. “But “they’ve become very visible in the last year or two.”
Because Jeffco doesn’t have a single urban core like Denver, she said, the area’s homeless are more spread out, gathering in smaller numbers throughout the county.
Those numbers appear to be growing.
Every January, the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative conducts a Point in Time Survey that gives at least a partial snapshot of what one night on the streets in the metro area looks like. Joe Baker, the group’s data coordinator, says numbers from this year’s count are still being tabulated, but should be available in May.
Last year’s count found 439 homeless people on Jeffco’s streets. Among them were 50 individuals who had been homeless for many years, but also 74 families with children. The majority of them had been homeless for less than a year.
Those numbers match what officials and leaders with area law enforcement, church groups and the county say they see — an increase to the newly homeless population across Jeffco.
In Olde Town Arvada, the library has struggled with balancing increased demand from homeless users and maintaining a family-friendly space. In Lakewood, a family cold weather shelter reports a definite increase in demand. In recent months, large homeless encampments have sprung up along several of Jeffco’s major waterways and greenbelt parks. Last September, local officials cleared a camp near the Wadsworth Boulevard and I-70 interchange,on the border between Arvada and Wheat Ridge, of about 18 homeless people. Police say as many as 40 may have been staying there before the notification that the camp would be cleared. A drive by the intersection last week showed some were still making their home there.
Potential causes of homelessness in the area are numerous.
Among them, Baker noted, could be the new camping ban and homeless camp sweeps in downtown Denver, which may be pushing more homeless into surrounding communities, such as Arvada, Golden and Lakewood.
“That’s one thing we’re eager to see — if there was an effect” in this year’s survey numbers, Baker said.
Recreational marijuana and the state’s expanded Medicaid program might also be making the state a popular destination for those most in danger of falling into homelessness, Baker and other homeless advocates say.
The area’s red-hot housing market and soaring rents might be another reason,according to several human service organizations. Most Jeffco municipalities are seeing median rental prices approaching $2,000 a month. A recent study by real estate website Zillow found that wages have not kept pace with rising housing prices. From 2011 to 2016, it found households in the Denver Metro Area are spending up to 14 percent more of their income just to pay rent each month.
The 2016 Point in Time Survey found that economic reasons — losing a job, inability to pay the mortgage, inability to pay medical bills — made up the largest portion of reasons that those surveyed in Jeffco said caused their homelessness.
But other causes, or combinations of issues definitely play a part too — mental health, physical abuse, immigration status, disability.
Multiple problems require multiple solutions. Many of those who work with the homeless say that there is a purposeful effort going on to “de-silo the silos,” as Otten puts it, to improve partnerships between their many organizations to work together.
Pastor James Fry, who runs the Mean Street Ministry and cold weather shelter in Lakewood, agrees with the need for better partnership. He says that too often he sees organizations so focused on a solution for part of the problem of homelessness, that they ignore the rest.
“There is no one one-size fits all solution to this,” he said.
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