Our Town: Homelessness in Denver

Tonight, more than 6,000 people in the metro area won’t have homes of their own to sleep in. Even more are on the verge of homelessness because of rising housing costs and a surging population. Think it couldn’t happen to you?

  • Edited by Natasha Gardner
  • Photography by Terry Ratzlaff

It was a noble goal.

In 2005, Denver set out to end homelessness within 10 years. Today, the deadline has passed, and thousands of Denverites still wake up in the unlikeliest of places: in a sleeping bag next to an iced-over Cherry Creek. Cramped on a shelter’s emergency cot. In the back seat of a car parked in Park Hill or on a friend’s couch.

They are Denver's homeless, a term popularized in the 1980s as a more humane way to describe a population of people without stable, permanent housing. This includes families, veterans, single parents, people with low-paying jobs, and refugees. People are often catapulted into homelessness by a moment of crisis—a divorce, job loss, medical bills, or an eviction. Most won’t be homeless for long; they’ll fight to find a place to stay.

To help them, Denver’s Road Home (DRH) was formed as an umbrella organization in 2005 to coordinate the community’s goodwill efforts—soup kitchens, food pantries, donated clothing. DRH wouldn’t provide services; it would help those who did. In 10 years, the organization used $72.3 million in public and private funding to hire outreach workers, open shelters, and expand programs.

This spring, the city auditor released a scathing audit of DRH’s efforts, saying that it “is unclear” what effect DRH has had on solving the issue. Despite this, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock continues to support the organization. “At the end of the day, this is critical,” Hancock says. “An audit is meant to make you better, and it will.”

It will have to. Most emergency beds are full in Denver, rain or shine, 365 days of the year. There will be at least 6,000 people with no homes of their own to go to tonight. About half of those are families with children, a quarter of them are homeless for the first time, and one in 10 have fled domestic violence.

All are part of a community trying to navigate the city’s patchwork of programs and services that DRH is trying to wrangle—albeit awkwardly at times. Last month, DRH’s second coming was laid out in a new short-term plan with a new name, “Destination: Home.” This time, the focus will be on program flexibility in case of economic crises or natural disasters and on prevention by providing the things—affordable housing, mental health services, job placement—that can stop homelessness on an individual basis. “Because when the need arises,” says Bennie Milliner, the program’s executive director, “we’re going to take care of it.”