Myth or Fact: Homelessness in Denver

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Metro Denver saw a 13% increase in overall homelessness from 2020, according to the 2022 Point in Time survey. The study also pointed to an increase in unsheltered homelessness: a striking 30% jump in the number of people living outside.

Homelessness is one of the most complicated issues facing cities across the country, and there are often misconceptions about the root causes. Read further to dive into several myths and facts about homelessness in Denver.

Myth: People choose to be homeless.

Fact: The challenge of homelessness is as diverse as the people who experience it. Families and individuals find themselves losing their home for a wide range of reasons – unexpected medical expenses, loss of employment, rejection by family due to identity or sexual orientation, mental illness, sudden rent increases, substance use, dramatic changes in living situations, a recent move that didn’t work out and so many more.

For some people, homelessness is temporary and ends when their next job begins, allowing them to get back on their feet. For others, maintaining a stable place to live is complicated by layered challenges that require long-term support. Removing this support and cutting resources does not help, and can make the issue of homelessness – not to mention the lives of people who are struggling – much worse.

As part of our solutions to homelessness, WellPower operates 14 residences and nine apartment buildings for people in services. Through a consistent commitment to supporting people through their recovery, matched with housing options that meet people’s diverse needs, we can make progress in reducing homelessness in Denver.

Myth: There are enough shelter beds to give every unhoused person a safe place to sleep in Denver.

Fact: According to the Point in Time count, there were nearly 7,000 people experiencing homelessness in January 2022. By contrast, there are only about 2,100 shelter beds available nightly, spread across fewer than 40 shelters in the Denver area, and many require specific criteria be met before they allow admittance. Denver’s Department of Housing Stability provides a list of walk-up shelters here. 

Myth: The leading cause of homelessness is addiction and substance use disorders.

Fact: In Denver, people experiencing homelessness due to substance use disorders only account for 27% of the total unhoused population. The leading cause of homelessness is a lack of affordable housing, unemployment, poverty and low wages. Denver is a high-cost-of-living city, 8% higher than the state average and 12% higher than the national average. Housing in Denver is 37% higher than the national average. With an average monthly rent of $1,994, a single working adult needs to make $20.31/hour at 40 hours/week to maintain a living wage. Denver’s minimum wage, as of 2022, is $15.87/hour.

Myth: People who are unhoused are usually criminals.

Fact: While people who are unhoused often have more interactions with police and law enforcement, they are no more dangerous or violent than people with housing. People who are living without housing are more likely to be arrested for minor offenses, like existing outside of private businesses or sleeping on public benches.

Recently, the Urban Institute used data from the supportive housing program in Denver to understand the relationship between policing and homelessness. They found that “Supportive housing significantly reduces the number of times people are arrested for offenses associated with experiencing homelessness.”

Myth: Providing housing to unhoused people doesn’t actually help long-term.

Fact: Permanent supportive housing is one of the most effective ways of helping people integrate back into the community by addressing their basic needs for housing and ongoing support.

Homelessness is a cause of compounding trauma, or trauma that continues to build on itself over time. According to SAMHSA, “Most families who are experiencing homelessness are headed by single women, and these women experience posttraumatic stress disorder, depression and substance use at a rate higher than the national average.”

Permanent supportive housing, like WellPower’s Sanderson Apartments, not only gives people a place to call home, it also provides resources to access mental health care, substance use treatment, employment and education counseling and more. These services may include the help of a case manager or counselor, help in building independent living and tenancy skills, assistance with integrating into the community and connections to community-based health care and treatment.

Programs like the Social Impact Bond, which funded the creation and maintenance of Sanderson Apartments, have long-term, resoundingly successful results, as shown by this 2021 report from the City of Denver.

Resources and additional information: