Denver's Road Home

By:Jamie Van Leeuwen, Ph.D Issue: Conscious Capitalism Section: Jewel Of Collaboration

How Community Collaboration is Paving a Pathway to Self-Sufficiency for the Homeless

Denvers Road Home Several years ago, Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article in The New Yorker that told the story of a homeless man named Murray. Like many of the chronically homeless, Murray had fallen into a hard-to-break routine: he’d be picked up by police for public drunkenness, incarcerated for detoxification, and when too inebriated – which was often – he’d be admitted to the local emergency room. It’s by this routine that Murray lived and died on the streets of Reno, using the city’s most expensive emergency services. Gladwell’s article is titled “Million-Dollar Murray,” referring to the amount of money Reno officials estimated it cost not to do something about Murray’s chronic homelessness.

In the article, Gladwell uses Murray’s story to illustrate an important point that also serves as the premise to Denver’s Road Home: to be successful in the long run, we must invest in strategies to end homelessness, rather than endlessly fund programs that serve simply to “manage” the issue. In 2005, when Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper and City Council approved Denver’s Road Home, the city’s 10-year plan to end homelessness, we knew it could not be successful without collaboration from all facets of our community. Nearly five years later, Denver’s Road Home is a moral and fiscal responsibility that the entire community has come to own, transforming the lives, attitudes and face of our city. Denver’s Road Home is both the right thing to do… and the smart thing to do.

The initiative began in 2003 in response to an increase in the city’s homeless population, as well as mounting public safety concerns. At that time, Mayor Hickenlooper convened a broad-based commission of community leaders to develop a comprehensive plan that would seek to address the root causes of homelessness and bring an end to homelessness as we know it in Denver. The Homeless Commission, together with 350 community volunteers, spent the next 18 months conducting an exhaustive research and planning process. Through their work, the commission came to the same conclusion that Reno officials did years later: the choice is not whether we want to provide housing for people who are homeless, the choices are the type of housing and the cost of the housing.

Before Denver’s Road Home, detox and jail comprised a very expensive substitute-housing program for the homeless in Denver. The city had been spending more than $70 million annually on shelter, health care and other services for the homeless without creating long-term solutions. For this reason, it would be necessary to implement a coordinated, efficient plan that would emphasize accountability by all participants (including the homeless), as well as a fiscally responsible response that would save taxpayers money in the long run. The Homeless Commission proposed the “housing first” model, a long-term strategy of providing affordable housing and employment for our homeless. The premise of the housing first model is this: it takes every bit of energy for someone to survive on the streets, the more quickly someone moves into housing the sooner they can stabilize their life and address other issues. Housing assistance is the first priority, followed by case-management, mental-health and substance-abuse counseling, employment and other services that help promote stability and self-sufficiency.

To achieve the ambitious goal of ending homelessness as we know it by 2015, a regional effort was imperative. Of the more than 10,000 homeless men, women and children estimated in the six-county metro area, 54 percent lived outside of Denver. With a metro-wide homeless problem, collaboration with surrounding counties would be key to expanding affordable housing and shelter beds and closing gaps in services.

Finally, Denver’s Road Home would need to balance the provision of housing, treatment services and job training with expectations of personal responsibility and self-reliance from those who receive the services. It would need to be about creating opportunity and helping people regain control of their lives.

The final plan, approved and implemented in 2005, was unique in its approach to not just serve the chronically homeless, those who are enduring long-term or repeated homelessness and typically suffering a serious mental illness or substance addiction, but also to provide opportunities and hope to all people living on the street, in shelters, or staying with friends and family. Denver’s Road Home has both compassion and accountability and has been tremendously successful in uniting our community to help end homelessness in Denver. After four years, the progress of this community collaboration is tangible and encouraging.:

* In the first three years, Denver experienced an 11% drop in overall homelessness and a 36% decrease in chronic homelessness; * Four years into the plan, more than 1,500 new units of housing for the homeless have been created; * Since implementation, the initiative has prevented more than 2,200 families from becoming homeless and helped more than 3,200 homeless people find jobs; * Side by side with the faith community, we’ve mentored 564 families out of homelessness; * To accomplish this, this community leveraged public dollars with more than $12 million in foundation and private sector support. Denver’s Road Home has generated $46.1 million in private, foundation and public sector support in the first four years in partnership with our fiscal agent, the Mile High United Way. Denvers Road Home Denver’s Road Home has worked closely with the community to develop strategic initiatives that not only generate awareness and resources for the plan, but also directly impact those we aim to support. This past October, Denver’s Road Home held its eighth “Project Homeless Connect” at the Pepsi Center; a single-day outreach program that connects the community to the homeless and the homeless with much-needed services, including employment, housing, health care, legal resources, identification, food-stamp benefits and more. Staffed entirely by homeless service providers and volunteers, Project Homeless Connect provides an opportunity for community organizations, businesses and individuals to be part of the plan to end homelessness. For the past two years, University of Denver students, faculty and alumni have hosted the event on their campus. Since the first Project Homeless Connect, Denver’s Road Home has helped connect more than 3,000 homeless people with more than 4,500 community volunteers, success that has prompted recognition from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.

In 2007, Denver’s Road Home partnered with the city’s Public Works Department, Mile High United Way and several private sector business organizations to launch the Donation Meter Project. Utilizing “retired” parking meters, this grassroots campaign is designed to increase awareness about Denver’s Road Home and redirect money that might otherwise be given to panhandlers into initiatives that provide meals, job training, substance abuse counseling, housing and other programs to those in need. To date, we’ve been successful in securing $1,000 sponsorships for each of the 86 meters installed throughout strategic downtown locations. While coins collected from the meters have raised approximately $25,000 per year and panhandling in the areas around the meters has decreased, an added value is the program has significantly raised awareness about homelessness and garnered attention from media outlets throughout the country.

Our annual fundraiser also has garnered widespread support from the Denver community and from our downtown hospitality industry in particular. In the initiative’s early stages, Walter Isenberg, a member of the original Homeless Commission and President and CEO of Sage Hospitality, wanted to do more, so he offered to host a fundraiser at one of the several downtown Denver hotels his company operates. Isenberg pledged 100 percent of the hotel room revenues from the night of the party, provided Mayor Hickenlooper would host the event in his pajamas, and the Annual PJ Party Benefiting Denver’s Road Home was born. The event, which is planned and executed almost entirely by individuals and professionals who donate their time and expertise, continues to grow in popularity and exceeds fundraising goals year after year. In 2009, the event sold out for the fourth year in a row, and 14 downtown hotels and restaurants donated a portion of their revenue on the night of the party. Coupled with corporate and community foundation gifts, the event raised half a million dollars for Denver’s Road Home. Next year, the PJ Party planning committee is setting the bar high once again. In addition to the Annual PJ Party, the planning committee will declare January 28, 2010, “PJ Day in Denver,” and encourage schools, businesses and other organizations around the city to raise money and awareness for the initiative by donning their pajamas for the entire day. As a result of this community effort, the PJ Party alone raised more than $1 million in resource for the homeless in the first four years.

Despite our tremendous success, the coming years pose new challenges. When Denver’s Road Home was launched no one could have foreseen the worst global recession since The Great Depression. Housing foreclosures, unemployment and funding cutbacks will continue to place new demands on Denver’s Road Home.

Lately we at Denver’s Road Home are often asked if the economy is going to impact progress we are making to end homelessness. While we have seen an increase in the newly homeless, the number of chronically homeless people has decreased. Indeed, it has been a challenging year. But we have also experienced great success and have seen a promising future. As a result of significant cost savings to the community credited to Denver’s Road Home through decreased use of detox and jail facilities by the homeless, the Denver City Council recently passed a proclamation supporting the development of 482 new units of affordable housing.

From the beginning, the citizens of Denver were promised a plan with achievable and sustainable goals with measurable action steps; a plan that emphasizes collaborative efforts and accountability from all people in the Denver community. As we move into year five of Denver’s Road Home, we have never been more determined to move this initiative forward. Through public, private and foundation support, Denver’s Road Home has not only exceeded its goals, objectives and outcomes for the first four years of the plan, but also has been designated part of a Model Cities program. Denver now co-chairs a model cities initiative with New York City as part of a Hilton Foundation grant through the National Alliance to End Homelessness where key leaders from across the country meet to share best practices and lessons learned. With five years left to go, and one of the most challenging economies of our lifetime, more than 4,000 homeless men, women and children still need our support. While we are on the right track, our work is far from done and our community must now more than ever work together to ensure that every ‘Murray’ in Denver; every homeless man, woman and child, has an alternative to living life on the streets.

When we started this initiative, we were asked frequently if we thought it was naïve or even ridiculous to tell people we were going to end homelessness. More than four years later, looking back, we ask: Isn’t it ridiculous to think we can’t?

Is it so outrageous to believe that in the next six years, given the successes we have experienced by a community coming together, that we can create enough units of housing, enough jobs and enough services so a woman and two kids who are victims of domestic violence don’t have to sleep in the back of their car for six months before we can identify housing for them? So a man who ends up homeless as a result of an addiction doesn’t have to live on the streets for eight years before we can connect him with treatment and housing? So a youth, who is kicked out of his or her home as a result of sexual orientation or an untreated addiction doesn’t have to sleep under a bridge or prostitute themselves on the streets for six months before they have access to housing?

Ending homelessness is not that we will never see a homeless person in our community again. Ending homelessness means making sure we have the services in place so when a man, woman or child is confronted with the unthinkable, that this community has a response to ensure that everyone has a safe place to call home.

Jamie Van Leeuwen, Ph.D, is Executive Director of the Mayor’s Office of Community Impact for Denver’s Road Home and Chair of the Office of Drug Strategy at the Denver Department of Human Services.