Thursday, 2 Feb 2023

Arapahoe County to build homes for “justice-involved” homeless population

Arapahoe County is ready to focus on helping a subset of the homeless population that is often the hardest to house — those who regularly get into trouble with the law and find themselves moving in and out of jail.

This week, the county announced plans to build a new 80- to 100-bed facility to provide permanent supportive housing to “justice-involved” people — in other words, the folks who are on a first-name basis with police and no stranger to the inside of a detention center.

“We had seen a pretty steady 13% to 14% of the jail population being released who were unhoused and have high needs,” said Kathy Smith, director of Arapahoe County’s Community Resources Department. “Then, through the pandemic, it got worse.”

In 2022, 21% of jail releases were homeless at the time they were originally booked, Smith said. And returning people to the streets only increases their chances of winding up back behind bars.

According to a four-year study by the County Criminal Justice Planning Office, homeless jail releases were 46% more likely than non-homeless releases to return to jail on a new charge. And those without a home spent 44% more time in jail than those with a home address.

“For the justice-involved, who upon release from jail are typically required to comply with conditions of probation, and many of whom are struggling with mental health or substance use disorder, find that lack of affordable housing is a significant barrier to recovery and rehabilitation,” Smith said. “Lack of housing for this population is therefore causing high recidivism rates amongst the unhoused.”

According to Metro Denver Homeless Initiative data and the organization’s point-in-time surveys of those living without a home, Arapahoe County’s homeless population increased from 198 in 2018 to 245 in 2020. Then it leapfrogged to 514 in January of this year, likely the result of economic pressures wrought by the coronavirus pandemic.

Fewer police contacts, arrests

Arapahoe County will be drawing on $3 million from American Rescue Plan Act funds that were allocated to the county last year to build the facility. It is partnering with Brothers Redevelopment on the project, which will take a few years to complete.

Cathy Alderman, the spokeswoman for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, said supportive housing — which comes with a range of services from employment aid to mental health services to substance abuse treatment — is effective at reducing chronic homelessness.

She points to a 2021 report from the Urban Institute that took an in-depth look at Denver’s efforts to provide permanent supportive housing for those regularly entwined with criminal justice system. The report, entitled “Breaking the Homelessness-Jail Cycle with Housing First,” found improvements across the board.

People referred to supportive housing experienced eight fewer police contacts and four fewer arrests than those who received usual services in the community, the report found. They had almost two fewer jail stays and spent an average of 38 fewer days behind bars than those who received typical care.

The report also found that people using supportive housing had four fewer visits to a detox facility than those outside the program. Sarah Gillespie, associate vice president of Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy with the Urban Institute, said the study showed that “permanent, affordable housing plus intensive wrap-around services using a housing first approach is critical to getting the strong results seen with this program.”

Denver has nearly 2,000 supportive housing units across the city, with another 275 units at nine locations under construction or in the pipeline. Britta Fisher, executive director of Denver’s Department of Housing Stability, said a home keeps more people out of jail and out of the hospital emergency room, which saves the city millions of dollars.

“When you combine services with housing, it works and it saves you money,” Fisher said. “It is hard to get sober, employed and well on the street. But when you’re in housing, you want to stay in it.”

Effective way “to resolve homelessness”

The Urban Institute report found that 86% of participants in Denver remained in stable housing one year later. At two years, the housing retention rate for participants was 81% and at year three, the retention rate was 77%.

“When I look at the preponderance of evidence and research, I see time and again that supportive housing is one of the most effective ways to resolve homelessness in our community,” Fisher said.

Smith, with Arapahoe County, said there’s no doubt the county’s new supportive housing complex won’t fully address the needs of everyone. That’s especially true when two of the county’s biggest cities — Aurora and Centennial — have urban camping bans in place that increase the likelihood of involvement by law enforcement in the lives of those living on the street.

But she said the program can always grow in the future, especially if it shows positive results out of the gate.

“We know 80 to 100 beds is not going to fully meet the need, but it’s a great start,” she said.

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