Michael De Yoanna
Our monthlong series exploring the affordability and accessibility of housing in the Denver area takes a turn to one of the most perplexing issues facing our communities: the lives of those who have no homes. Point-in-time counts in Adams, Arapahoe, Broomfield, Denver, Douglas and Jefferson counties find 2,000 people living unsheltered and 3,000 in emergency shelters. Most of those people were found in Denver but many live in our communities and neighborhoods.
While panhandlers and tent cities are visible across the metro area, many of the unhoused are unseen and may not even be included in the numbers because they are sleeping on a friend’s couch or a family that’s living in a relative’s extra room. The federal government includes this status in its definition of homelessness, along with those who are at imminent risk of losing a roof over their heads.
Homelessness has long been a problem in the metro area and the soaring housing costs that we’ve tracked in our series certainly don’t help. Typically, a family shouldn’t spend more than 30% of their wages on rent and utilities. Elsewhere in our series, we’ve found that many people across the metro area are living paycheck to paycheck and struggling to afford a place to live. Minimum wage earners might spend upward of 60% of their paychecks on rent.
Across the Front Range, rising housing costs are worsening the problem. In Littleton, south of Denver, the price of single-family homes has jumped roughly $300,000 since 2017. Lone Tree saw increases in excess of $473,000. In Brighton, $225,000.
Apartment rents have followed in recent years, part of a trend spanning the last two decades where median prices rose faster than median household incomes “in every Colorado county and city with 50,000+ residents,” according to Denver-based Root Policy Research, which analyzes housing affordability issues.
Some of the most needy in our communities find homes through federal funding, like vouchers. But the system, reporter Nina Joss finds, is based on lotteries, where people in need of housing may wait for years before winning. Others wind up roughing it on the streets, as reporters Andrew Fraieli and Olivia Love discovered in an interview of a man who lost his legs sleeping under a highway bridge during a horrific snowstorm.
There are consequences to it all, like how the mentally ill are especially vulnerable to homelessness and highly likely to find themselves in the criminal-justice system — meaning a record of police contacts for crimes connected to their situation, such as trespassing, becomes a barrier that prevents them from turning their lives around. There are costs associated with this to taxpayers, like those associated with providing more policing and beds in jails. Trends like those will be on Colorado Community Media’s newsroom in the months ahead.
Contributors to the project include:
Michael de Yoanna
Deborah Grigsby Smith
Deb Hurley Brobst