JEFFREY BROWN: Finally tonight: an ambitious plan to end homelessness in Denver.
NewsHour correspondent Tom Bearden reports.
TOM BEARDEN: Every day, outreach workers like Chris Connor (ph) and Brendan Frescaz (ph) poke around in places where most Denverites never go, like this culvert beneath Interstate 25. They are looking for homeless people who might need help.
MAN: How long have you been staying here?
MAN: About, like, a month.
TOM BEARDEN: On this day, they met up with a young man named Justin.
MAN: Do you need thick socks, instead of the summertime socks?
TOM BEARDEN: The outreach is one small part of an elaborate program called Denver’s Road Home. It was launched in 2005 with the lofty goal of ending homelessness in 10 years.
Executive Director Amber Callender says it’s on track to meet that goal at the halfway point.
AMBER CALLENDER, executive director, Denver’s Road Home: Within the first five years, we have actually accomplished so much more than this community even dreamed possible. We have created nearly 2,000 units of permanent housing for formerly homeless individuals to live in. We have prevented over 5,000 people from becoming homeless in the first place, and mentored families, to the tune of 780, out of homelessness through our faith community.
TOM BEARDEN: Callender says the key to success was bringing business leaders to the table, encouraging them to give homeless people jobs as a first step out of poverty.
Ed Blair, the general manager of the downtown Oxford Hotel, admits he was initially skeptical.
ED BLAIR, general manager, Oxford Hotel: In all honesty, I operate an upscale hotel in the historic part of Denver, LoDo, Lower Downtown, and I was very concerned. I didn’t know what to expect.
Would there be wrongdoing that would occur in my guest rooms? Would my current associates be at risk? Would my guests be at risk in some form? And that’s just being completely candid and honest, that there were some hurdles in my own mind as it relates to my responsibilities that I had to get over.
TOM BEARDEN: Blair is now one of the program’s biggest proponents.
ED BLAIR: I think that there’s a great hunger and a great passion to return to a stable life. And part of that recovery and self-sufficiency process, a critical component, is employment. So, we find an extremely high level of motivation and hunger to be successful.
TOM BEARDEN: Over the past five years, he’s hired several people who were homeless, says they became some of his best employees.
Orlando Black had been homeless for two-and-a-half years when he came to the Road Home program. Black says, if it wasn’t for his housekeeping job at the hotel, he’s not sure he would have survived.
ORLANDO BLACK, formerly homeless: I would feel like I would be six feet under in the grave, or in jail, or in some kind of psychotic nuthouse somewhere.
TOM BEARDEN: So, you’re lucky to be here?
ORLANDO BLACK: Well, I feel like I’m more than lucky. I’m blessed to be here.
TOM BEARDEN: Another key to success is permanent housing. The nonprofit Colorado Coalition for the Homeless operates many of the housing units now and is about to open its newest project, 98 loft-style apartments, many with stunning views of the city.
Half of the units will go to the homeless, half to low-income workers. A pizza restaurant on the ground floor will ultimately provide many residents with jobs.
So, this is the new place?
NANCY SHEA, homeless: This is the new place. It’s even equipped with a dishwasher.
TOM BEARDEN: Nancy Shea has been homeless for the past eight years, but, in just a few weeks, she will be moving into this building.
What do you think when you walk into a brand-new place like this and think you’re going to be here in a few months?
NANCY SHEA: Oh, it’s unbelievable. It’s unbelievable. It’s breathtaking. This is a beautiful, beautiful place, clean, warm, safe.
TOM BEARDEN: Do you think you will be happy here?
NANCY SHEA: Oh, I know I will be happy here. I know I will be happy.
TOM BEARDEN: Residents in these apartments have been on a waiting list for two years. They pay rent on a sliding scale adjusted for income. Most are provided job training, unless mental or physical health issues prevent them from working. And all are given access to medical care and substance abuse counseling.
John Parvensky is the president of the coalition, which has been serving the needs of the homeless for 25 years.
JOHN PARVENSKY, president, Colorado Coalition for the Homeless: Our success rate is, about 90 to 95 percent of folks that we are able to move off the street into housing are stable in housing after two years.
Then, beyond that, we want to see their health improve, their mental health status improve, their substance use eliminated, and their entry back into the job force improved. And, so, we see various levels of success there, but, overall, if we can keep them in housing, we’re doing well. If we meet these other benchmarks, then that’s icing on the cake.
TOM BEARDEN: Parvensky applauds what the city’s Road Home plan has done, but is worried that it might not be able to meet the growing need. He says there are still 10,000 people who are homeless in Denver.
JOHN PARVENSKY: In this economy, we’re seeing a 20 percent increase of families and individuals who have become homeless, families who never thought that they would need our services or that would become homeless. But this economy has just been a killer for a lot of those people.
Unless we build more supportive housing units like this, we’re going to see more and more people falling behind. We’re seeing people who are being locked out of the economy. They’re too old to be able to get a job back. They have gone through their savings. They really don’t have the resources to provide housing on their own.
AMBER CALLENDER: I don’t think anyone expected the number of units that we would have created in this short of time, the amount of money we have raised, the amount of energy we have raised. But there is a community who really needs our support. And our work is not finished yet.
TOM BEARDEN: Director Callender understands that increasing the funding level is critical to meet the demand. It’s one of the reasons she recently took potential donors on a bus tour to some of the facilities that partner with the city.
Women’s shelters, soup kitchens, and medical clinics are now coordinated under Road Home to provide a variety of services.
WOMAN: I can now tell you we served 550 different — 515 different women last year.
TOM BEARDEN: Nearly a third of the $12 million Road Home budget comes from private donations. The rest comes from federal, state and local governments. All of the money is administered by the Mile High United Way.
MAN: So, the first food bank that I have for you would be the Salvation Army food bank.
TOM BEARDEN: United Way also hosts this call center, which matches individuals with various services throughout the city.
CEO Christine Benero says the partnerships that make the Road Home program possible didn’t come easily.
CHRISTINE BENERO, CEO, Mile High United Way: I think we didn’t realize when we began that we had to really do a lot of education around who really is homeless, because we all have an image of who we think a homeless person is.
You drive down the street, you see a person standing with a sign, and that’s our image. The reality is, it’s families, it’s children. And I don’t think we realized at the beginning how much an education of what’s happening in this community that we need to do.
AMBER CALLENDER: What are your questions about it? We probably have all levels of knowledge around homelessness and poverty.
TOM BEARDEN: Benero and Callender have hosted leaders from several other cities who want to duplicate the program, which has been called a model by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
But, with tightening government budgets, paying for such comprehensive plans may become increasingly difficult.