Campus & Community

Denver faces a rise in homelessness, experts say

Homelessness is going to increase slightly in Denver over the next year, according to a representative from Denver’s Road Home, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper’s 10-year program to end homelessness.

Speaking at a forum on homelessness at DU Oct. 30, Jerene Petersen, project administrator for the Department of Human Services, said that she anticipates the numbers of people experiencing homelessness will increase due to the rising foreclosure rate, poor economy and the resulting decrease in funding available for services.

Petersen fears that some might perceive the 10-year plan as a failure if homelessness increases.

“But imagine if we didn’t have the plan,” she says. “We haven’t seen an overwhelming explosion yet. Our numbers have increased slightly, but I can’t image how they would have increased if didn’t have the system [10-year plan] in place.”

She spoke to a crowd of 25 at the Chambers Center for the Advancement of Women during a forum hosted by DU’s Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning. Other panelists included Chris Christner from the Mental Health Center of Denver, DU political science Professor Tom Knecht, and Michael George, a formerly homeless man who was helped by Denver’s Road Home.

The forum was designed to discuss the current state of affairs in Denver and the issues that will most affect the homeless population during the next presidential administration.

Knecht says it is tough to find specific policies and programs that address homelessness in John McCain and Barack Obama’s platforms.

“Welfare and homelessness are not featured on campaign trail,” he says. “There’s not a lot of electoral benefit in doing so, and the concern for both camps is the middle class.”

Petersen says that Denver’s Road Home has been working strategically to address issues related to chronic homelessness, and the program has seen a 39 percent reduction in the last year of those who are chronically homeless.

“We’ve specifically targeted the chronically homeless with our program because this population uses services like the emergency room and detox much more heavily, and the service costs are extremely high.”

Service providers in the metro area are beginning to see an increase in those experiencing homelessness for the first time.

“As the economy becomes more challenging, I’m not surprised,” says Petersen. “We didn’t anticipate this economic situation. Now that we’re several years into our plan, we need to decide if we need to recalibrate what we are doing, and decide how we are going to adjust the plan and make more resources available to the newly homeless.”

Petersen says the community must work together to keep homelessness issues on the forefront.

“Denver’s Road Home is about bringing people and entities together, and DU is a great example of that type of partnership.”

The University has hosted two Project Homeless Connect (PHC) events, and will host its third Homeless Connect event on April 24, 2009. PHC, a partnership between DU, Denver’s Road Home and the Mile High United Way, serves as a one-stop shop connecting homeless individuals to needed services, including employment, housing, health care, legal resources, IDs, Social Security and food-stamp benefits.

At last year’s PHC event more than 680 homeless adults and 139 children — including 64 families — were served by 800 volunteers from the DU community.

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