How do you solve homelessness? For some, the answer is simple: provide homes.
At the Durango Homeless Coalition summit held Wednesday at the Durango Public Library, officials from across Colorado explained how they are housing people without any time limits or sobriety requirements.
The summit drew about 50 people from area nonprofits, churches and governments.
“We need to refocus the conversation on what we do to make homelessness rare, short-lived and nonrecurring, and that is going to come through the permanent supportive housing options,” said Vanessa Fenley, project director for Homeward 2020, a Fort Collins organization focused on the issue.
Permanent supportive housing typically requires tenants to pay 30 percent of their income in rent, but if they don’t have income, they don’t owe rent, said Zoe LeBeau, a supportive housing consultant. Tenants are not required to get sober, but professionals extend help to the tenants, she said.
Many people can’t get off the street with strict requirements around sobriety and employment.
LeBeau has managed housing that systematically evicted people after the 90-day limit and sent them back to abusive situations or the street. With stable housing, people can start addressing their addictions, she said.
“Whatever alcohol and drugs make bad, homelessness makes worse,” she said.
It’s a model that has been adopted in Fort Collins, Grand Junction and Colorado Springs. People who worked in each community described a rise in the visibility of the homeless in recent years, and that drove the need to find a new strategy.
Fort Collins and Colorado Springs faced opposition to the new services and some residents felt the available social services were drawing in transients.
“There are communities across the country that feel like everybody is coming to them,” Fenley said.
A survey of the homeless in Fort Collins found the 40 percent from out of state came for jobs, family and the area’s beauty.
Councilor Dick White noted clear parallels between Fort Collins and Durango because both are attractive places to live no matter a person’s income level.
However, the level of services provided did not parallel the rise in panhandling last year.
Manna Soup Kitchen served 10 percent fewer meals last year, even though panhandling was more visible, said Tim Walsworth, an event organizer and executive director of the Business Improvement District.
The rise of panhandling and other homelessness issues led to the creation of the Durango Homeless Coalition, which has been working on the problem.
While providing housing first is a proven solution, the city does not have a dedicated funding stream to support that, White said.
“It’s a great conversation to be having, but the solutions are neither obvious nor simple,” he said.