Englewood, Littleton, Sheridan going “boots on the ground” in fight against growing homelessness

ENGLEWOOD — Mookie Moore is crouched at the edge of a parking lot on Broadway, 36 years of his belongings stuffed into a cart and backpack that he carries with him wherever he goes.

“I drift all day and all night,” he said on a recent afternoon on Englewood’s main strip, crouching outside of the pay-what-you-can eatery Cafe 180. “Every day just blends in.”

His companion Tyrone Carter, who he just met that day, said his previous night spent on the street was a misery.

“It was so cold outside,” said Carter, as he blasted hip-hop from his phone to a Bluetooth speaker perched on a utility box behind him. “It’s very hard.”

Moore and Carter are two of a growing number of people who don’t have a place to live in Denver’s southern suburbs. They’re also the people officials and homeless advocates in Englewood, Sheridan and Littleton hope can benefit from a homeless initiative that is ready to shift from three years of concept and planning to on-the-ground intervention and assistance.

Arapahoe County this week signed an agreement with the three cities to hire a homelessness coordinator, who is slated to start in the role this spring and remain in place for three years. Littleton, Englewood and Sheridan are expected to sign the agreement in the coming weeks.

“It’s spending the dollars and putting the boots on the ground,” Devin Granbery, Sheridan’s city manager, said of the Tri-Cities Homelessness Policy Committee’s next phase. “We want to move the needle pretty significantly.”

The coordinator will make $110,000 a year, a cost that will be split between the three cities.

The Tri-Cities Homelessness Policy Committee, formed in 2018 and made up of civic leaders, service providers and members of law enforcement across Englewood, Littleton and Sheridan, has been studying the dynamics of homelessness across the three communities for the last three years. Now it’s ready to tackle the issue head-on as a global pandemic, coupled with a housing market hit by rapidly increasing home prices and rental costs, has made securing shelter that much more difficult.

According to The Metro Denver Homeless Initiative’s second annual State of Homelessness report released last month, 32,233 people accessed services or housing support related to homelessness at least once between July 1, 2020 and June 30, 2021 in metro Denver — nearly twice the number as the year before.

“We feel it is the right approach because we’re using science and data — and you want to go after the root cause and not just the symptoms of homelessness,” Englewood Assistant City Manager Tim Dodd said. “Having this coordinator is a critical foundational step because they’re going to pull all of this work together.”

Different face of homelessness

“This work” consists of two analytical reports from The Center on Housing and Homelessness Research at the University of Denver and a 43-page Tri-Cities Homeless Action Plan that was released last summer.

The action plan recommends that the three cities look at establishing a homeless navigation center, a safe parking program and workforce centers to help those without a home transition to employment. It also suggests the cities activate outreach teams of social workers and other professionals trained to deal with families and individuals suffering from mental illness or threatened by domestic violence.

The report estimates that it will cost the three cities $705,000 to implement its recommendations.

While homelessness in the suburbs often doesn’t manifest in the way it does in Denver, where authorities regularly clear out expansive tent encampments in and around downtown, it’s just as real, say those who track it.

“Not all of the unhoused population is visible,” said Samma Fox, Littleton’s assistant city manager. “It could be families staying with other families or staying in cars. They might not have been captured in the point-in-time survey.”

The point-in-time survey is conducted on a single night once a year by The Metro Denver Homeless Initiative. It found that the homeless count in Arapahoe County leap-frogged from 228 in 2019 and 245 in 2020 to 523 last year. Some of those cases turned deadly.

According to the Arapahoe County Coroner’s Office, 43 people experiencing homelessness in the county in 2020 died from natural causes on the street, from drug overdose or from hypothermia.

“The pandemic has exacerbated it,” said Mike Sandgren, network leader for Change the Trend and a mission pastor at the Wellspring Church in Englewood. “Service providers are seeing a lot of new faces, learning a lot of new names.”

Change the Trend is a consortium of more than 30 agencies and service providers that formed five years ago and meets weekly to work on solutions to homelessness in Englewood, Littleton and Sheridan.

“Even before the pandemic, the issue was becoming more visible in these first-tier suburbs,” Sandgren said. “This is not the beginning of the attack on homelessness, but it’s an adoption of higher levels of service for the area in the next few years.”

The homeless challenge in the south suburbs has intensified in recent years as nearby communities have adopted urban camping bans, including Centennial and Parker. Denver has had a camping ban in place for nearly a decade and voters in 2019 overwhelmingly voted to keep it in place.

Boulder has had a long-time ban on camping, and in recent weeks, Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman said he would bring back that city’s camping ban proposal that was voted down by the city council last year.

Camp cleanups in downtown Denver have been blamed for pushing the problem to other parts of the city. There isn’t good data on whether they also cause some to move to farther-flung areas of the metro area, but in the action report, several Tri-Cities stakeholders surveyed on the issue “cited displacement by Denver police after a series of encampment cleanups as a cause of an increased presence of single adults in the region.”

Both Sheridan and Englewood forbid camping in their parks and Englewood police Sgt. Reid McGrath said the South Platte River, which runs through all three cities, is designated as park land and therefore off-limits to overnight visitors.

The city made headlines in 2019 when it cleared out a homeless encampment that had sprouted on the banks of the river. McGrath said there haven’t been any sweeps like that in Englewood since.

Granbery, the Sheridan city manager, said his city takes a softer approach with its homeless population.

“We don’t allow camping but we have yet to issue a single ticket,” he said. “It’s about getting people assistance rather than enforcement.”

“Right for this area”

Meanwhile, the number of those finding themselves without permanent shelter in Littleton, Englewood and Sheridan could well jump in the coming year. The Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office stepped up evictions markedly in 2021 over 2020, when a moratorium on evictions helped slow down the pace of removal.

According to agency data, evictions in Arapahoe County skyrocketed from 603 in 2020 to more than 1,200 last year. McGrath, with Englewood police, said the city is already trying to get out ahead of it with a program started four years ago that provides “co-responders” — those skilled in dealing with people with mental health issues — on police calls.

And there are plans in the works to roll out a “mobile crisis program” in Englewood, where teams of people would go to where the unhoused are. Dodd said the Englewood City Council just this week allocated more than $1.5 million of the city’s $8.7 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding to address homelessness.

Fox, the assistant city manager with Littleton, said the most valuable aspect to the Tri-Cities approach to addressing homelessness is working in cooperation across three communities while also tailoring strategies to attack the issue that work better for a suburban environment.

“It is different in Englewood, Sheridan and Littleton than it is in Denver,” she said. “We’re trying to figure out what is right for this area.”

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