Robert Balukas was one of many people in Englewood living out of sight, without shelter, struggling to survive in a city where he once carried the key to his own residence.
But when he met a man at Cafe 180, a restaurant that provides meals in exchange for volunteer service for those who can’t pay, Balukas started down a path that would eventually bring him a place to call home and purpose back to his life.
“I didn’t trust these guys at first because I didn’t know their angle, but they don’t have an angle,” Balukas, 55, said. “They just want to help people.”
The man is a member of Change the Trend Network, a coalition of nonprofits, the Englewood police, churches and service providers that is attempting to turn lives around, one by one, with a resource pipeline that has already shown results.
In Englewood, a visible homeless population signals a hint of the problem in the suburbs. There, people experience homelessness in motels, along the South Platte River, in alleys and vehicles. Families often live doubled up in homes.
“The suburban community still has a generalized mindset that people experiencing homelessness belong downtown,” said Lynn Ann Huizingh, executive director of a network of shelters in west and south metro Denver. “Many people believe that anyone experiencing homelessness in the suburbs came from downtown and has moved to the suburbs recently.”
But those on the front lines of fighting homelessness in Englewood say many grew up or worked in the community where they end up on the street. And with some in Englewood coming from out of state — and the homeless population appearing to increase in the last few years, according to local officials — nonprofits and the religious community are shouldering the brunt of the load.
But the cash-strapped city government is hoping to pitch in with a more hands-on role, on a recently formed team with Sheridan and Littleton to provide better data on the underlying causes of homelessness in the area and to answer the question: How should municipalities best respond?
Mark McIntosh, the Change the Trend member who met Balukas, said he’s learned that making change with homeless individuals hinges on relationships.
“You have to build trust,” McIntosh said. “They have to believe there’s a path.”
‘A void of options’
Although exact numbers are difficult to come by, city officials and advocates agree Englewood’s homeless population has increased in recent years. From a cleanup on the Platte in 2017, when Englewood police counted about 30 people living on its east banks, to new faces showing up at the local Wellspring church — where about a dozen new faces per month arrive at a food pantry and medical clinic program — the community has its hands full trying to stem the tide.
Many parts of the Denver metro area lack crisis-response systems to deal with visible homelessness, said Cathy Alderman, spokeswoman for the Denver-based Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.
“A lot of people live in Englewood, and they might have to come to Denver to shelter or to services, when it would be more productive for them to stay in the community they’re connected with,” said Alderman, whose organization provides housing, health care and other supportive services.
Huizingh, who runs the Severe Weather Shelter Network of churches throughout Jefferson County and the Littleton-Englewood area, said transportation challenges can keep homeless individuals from the help they need.
“A simple gap measure that would make a huge difference for our guests is storage space for personal possessions. When a guest has a locker in which to store their belongings, it frees them up to think of other things, like a job, treatment for substance use or abuse, or medical needs,” Huizingh said. Showers and laundry, she added, are critical to finding employment, too.
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In the absence of much funding from Englewood city government, Change the Trend has stepped into that gap, creating a resource-navigation program geared to putting individuals on a path to housing and employment.
“We’ll have 18 new lockers for people in the program, for a total of 24,” said Mike Sandgren, a coordinator at Wellspring church and a leader at Change the Trend. “Access to a locker will kind of be the incentive for folks to meet with a mentor on a regular basis.”
The lockers are hosted by Giving Heart homeless-services center on South Broadway, a place where crowds gather each week to eat a hot meal and use a small computer lab.
Program participants link up with a mentor from one of Change the Trend’s member organizations — including Giving Heart, The Sacred Grace Englewood church and the Severe Weather Shelter Network — as they take steps to stabilize their lives.
One of those organizations is AllHealth Network, a behavioral-health service provider that has locations in Littleton and other south metro areas. Along with being a consequence of mental illness and substance abuse, homelessness can also cause and perpetuate those problems, which make finding and keeping housing more difficult, national research notes.
“What’s cool about Change the Trend is it costs nothing,” said McIntosh, who leads A Stronger Cord, an organization that helps people recover from addiction through exercise. “It’s just been a collaborative effort. By everyone coming together, we’re becoming more successful at lessening the impact of homelessness in this community. None of us are out begging for people’s money — we’re out begging for people’s time.”
Six people have received permanent housing through the program, which began in spring 2018. And 16 people total have enrolled in the program — two of them were set to sign a lease April 19, Sandgren said. Some participants have been housed through permanent supportive housing programs — others have found unsubsidized housing — around the metro area. Mentors still check in with them, and some volunteer with the member organizations to give back, Sandgren said.
All the collaboration adds up to what are often called wraparound services, resources that address different areas of a person’s life rather than focusing on just one.
“In the past, it was we got them housing and that was it,” McIntosh said. “But now, get them housing and get them the wraparound services that understand what’s going on emotionally and behaviorally for them, and make it easy for them to stay involved in what’s good for them.”
But the end goal — housing — is a piece of the puzzle that doesn’t easily jibe in Englewood. Housing is a gap in resources “pretty much across the board,” Sandgren said.
MORE: Local team helps people out of homelessness, one by one
A one-bedroom apartment’s rent in Denver, which has been rising steadily for several years, topped $1,060 in March, according to Apartment List, a site that researches rental industry trends.
“Speaking from the perspective of more on the outskirts of the metro area, there just seems to be a void of options,” said Sandgren, who said both transitional and permanent housing — along with non-weather-related shelter — are lacking in the region.
‘Might be the server in your restaurants’
Sleeping in cars, storing survival gear outdoors, fending off fights and fearing belongings will be stolen in shelters are some of the roadblocks homeless individuals face when waiting for housing, advocates say.
Because the path to housing can often be years long, nonprofits and other organizations form the crucial cushioning in that gap, said Donna Zimmerman, Giving Heart’s director.
MORE: Local school districts support hundreds of students experiencing different kinds of homelessness
“It’s usually two to three years-plus, even five,” Zimmerman said. Her organization helped some of its clients apply for housing three years ago. “It wasn’t until like a year ago when we started seeing our guys on the list.”
Even then, those who are homeless must make sure to have identification and birth certificates ready — a challenge when having belongings stolen is common on the streets, Zimmerman said. About three in four people who come to Giving Heart need an ID or birth certificate.
Having a place like Giving Heart, where guests can access a slew of resources, including help with obtaining IDs and birth certificates, is imperative for someone on a housing waitlist, Zimmerman said.
Tackling housing first is important to getting homeless individuals back on their feet, despite the mental and substance-use disorders they often face, said Alderman, of Colorado Coalition. And requiring sobriety or participation in religious activities or substance-use classes can lead to people staying outside rather than choosing shelter.
“Operating on that ‘housing first’ philosophy,” the coalition wants to get people into a safe space first and then address substance use, Alderman said. “That’s going to be much more effective than leaving them outside on their own.”
There isn’t a 100 percent success rate with the “housing first” philosophy. But although some homeless individuals may not successfully move to self-sufficiency, Zimmerman said they — as a group — don’t deserve a stigma about their willingness to get back on their feet.
“We’ve seen the unsuccessful (and) the successful, but it’s an individual choice,” Zimmerman said.
The City of Denver’s social-impact bonds program, which uses funds to provide housing and other support to about 300 chronically homeless — those who frequently use the city’s emergency services, such as police, jail, courts and emergency rooms — housed 285 people, a city news release said in November. About 240 remained in housing. The program, which involves the Colorado Coalition, was launched in 2016.
“When we reached out to the first 100 individuals, only one person refused housing,” Alderman said. “So that tells us that when you make appropriate housing options available to people, they are more than likely going to accept them.”
Colorado Coalition hears from law enforcement agencies in the Denver metro area who say they need better connection to services for the homeless, Alderman said, and the organization hears from voices in other regions.
“Frankly, throughout the state, Grand Junction, Durango, Fort Collins — people are contacting us from everywhere saying there are more people experiencing homeless in our communities, what can we do?” Alderman said. “So maybe we need a region-wide system of referrals and resources so people outside of downtown Denver have connections to safe spaces to be in.”
But when Colorado Coalition says it plans to build homes for the homeless, it faces backlash from communities that don’t want them in their neighborhoods, Alderman said.
“The fact of the matter is they’re already there,” she said. “So you can choose to let them languish on the streets and be visible, or you can build housing for them.”
MORE: Balukas' journey from corners and shelters to housing
People forget there’s a class of people experiencing homelessness who are sleeping in cars, couch surfing or living with multiple families in one home, she added.
“They might be working in that community, they might be teaching in that community, they might be the server in the restaurants you like to go to,” Alderman said. “It looks so different for so many people.”
‘Bring all resources to the table’
Along with the complexity of what does work, organizations fighting homelessness call out a few practices as examples of what well-meaning people should avoid.
Nonprofits should avoid a “fix-it” mentality but be there to support homeless individuals, Zimmerman said.
“I think if we go into it with a ‘fix-it’ attitude, we’re setting ourselves up for something we can’t do. I think creating those healthy boundaries around our guests, that’s important,” Zimmerman added. “And holding those boundaries — how close and emotionally invested we get. Be cautious in what you promise, because you can’t deliver some of those things.”
Groups who want to help also have to contend with a common criticism: When does help become a counterproductive handout?
“I think if you create a model that they’re contributing, and it’s not just the handout,” it’s productive, Zimmerman said. “Our guests do a lot of our chores here, but in return they get their needs met, the sleeping bags and hygiene. We’re creating a sense of ownership that this is their safe place.”
Enforcing laws that make illegal certain experiences of homelessness, such as camping outside, aren’t helpful, Alderman said.
They “don’t end up in people being stably housed,” said Alderman, who has criticized Denver’s urban camping ban as a policy that pushes homeless into surrounding cities but doesn’t address underlying issues.
For Huizingh, cities, counties and nonprofits need to be in harmony to address homelessness.
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“The biggest challenge is the silo mentality or the unwillingness to bring all resources to the table,” Huizingh said. “If any one sector refuses to work with the others and embrace the diversity that is naturally there, then we fail as a community.”
Change the Trend’s efforts in Englewood aren’t housing large numbers of people housed the way deeply funded programs in Denver can, but Zimmerman said sticking with people experiencing homeless is rewarding nonetheless.
“When you walk with someone for six years and get them housed, that is a success,” Zimmerman said. “Because I know what I’ve done for a person. That counts to me.”