Not paying for housing is more expensive than you think

Fifty-three-year-old Robert Myers, whose name has been changed to respect his privacy, lives in a 31-unit “Housing First” community in North Boulder called Lee Hill. The city rents all the units to people who have been chronically homeless.

The Lee Hill community was Boulder’s first experiment with a Housing First approach to homelessness, which prioritizes getting people housed over sobriety or workforce programs.

“The problem is when we were making criteria like you have to be sober We weren’t inspiring sobriety, we were eliminating people with higher needs from our programming. We were filtering people,” says Michael Block, chief housing officer for Boulder Shelter for the Homeless.

Block says the problem with pathologizing homelessness is it doesn’t help people get off the street and it leaves the most vulnerable people without support.

“And this is something that I think that the homeless community and providers really still struggle with. You’re focusing limited resources on those with lower needs who you can help and then report that ‘Look! we did such a good job!’ When, in fact, a little greater examination, a little more humble examination would probably reveal that, oh by requiring people to have income or a job, okay, I just eliminated everybody who’s not able-bodied for my program. When I require sobriety in order to get a place in my program, I’ve just eliminated everybody who can’t be sober,” says Block.

According to Block, a Housing First approach says the best approach to solving homelessness is getting people housed.

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    Kenyon_HousingFirst_SJN Alexis Kenyon


And, in recent years, the Housing First approach has proliferated. The Office of Veterans Affairs began using it about ten years ago. Homelessness among veterans has since dropped by half.

In 2016, Denver created a Housing First program called the Supportive Housing Initiative Bond (SIB). It housed 300 chronically homeless people living in Denver.

Cathy Alderman of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless says they convinced Denver officials with an economic argument: “We would make proposals to say, look, we can house individuals for around $20,000 a year. And if we leave them to use emergency rooms and the jail system and detoxes and shelters, it’s going to cost upwards of $40,000 a year per person.”

Lee Hill, in North Boulder, was Boulder’s first experiment with Housing First, which places chronically unhoused individuals into permanent housing

SIB ended up saving Denver millions of dollars and 99% of the people they housed remain in the program. But getting people on board with Housing First means changing the narrative around homelessness.

“I would say that a lot of homelessness has a lot more to do with luck than with choice,” says Lindell Ellingson, a resident coordinator for Boulder Housing Partners. “It turns out that when people aren’t living on the streets, getting exposed to more trauma every day, they can make big shifts in their lives. And as a community, you can save money.”

The next big challenge for Housing First is getting it funded at a national level. “Homelessness is not being addressed nationally and so it exists in these pockets,” says Block. He cites a recent survey that found 83 percent of people who are homeless in Boulder became homeless somewhere else first. “The causes are all national and the politics, the impact is all local.”

Even so, since Boulder switched to a Housing First approach, it’s made a huge difference: “Hundreds are housed and supported and I think our community needs to be unbelievably proud of that,” says Block.

Lee Hill units come with a full kitchen, a living room, a full bathroom, and shared community space
Back at Lee Hill, Robert says since he moved in, his health has stabilized, although he still struggles with a tremor which came on aggressively when he was homeless.

“One of the biggest emotions I’ve had over the years is a lot of anger at people because they don’t get it,” he says. “They don’t get what it’s like to go through a period where you just don’t have anywhere to go. They have a bed to go home to at night. For homeless people, it’s not like that.”

Robert says when he first moved into Lee Hill there was a lot of tension about whether or not housing homeless people was a good idea. But recently that’s shifted. “I think we’ve just fallen on such hard economic times. Everyone’s being squeezed now, it might go a long way to all of us being compassionate to each other.”

In Boulder and in Denver, Housing First programs continue to grow. Their success has pushed the topic of homelessness to the top of the agenda for local and state lawmakers. Still, when it comes to getting everyone who is chronically homeless off the streets, Boulder, Denver and the rest of the U.S. have a long way to go.

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This story is part of a Rocky Mountain Community Radio reporting collaboration on affordable housing, funded by the Solutions Journalism Network

Picture of Alexis Kenyon

Alexis Kenyon

Alexis Kenyon is an experienced radio reporter with more than 15 years of experience creating compelling, sound-rich radio stories for news outlets across the country. Kenyon has master's degrees from the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism in radio broadcast and photojournalism. She has worked in KGNU's news department since 2021 as a reporter, editor, and daily news producer. In all her work, she strives to produce thought-provoking, trustworthy journalism that makes other people's stories feel personal. In addition to audio production, Kenyon runs KGNU's news internship program and oversees the department's digital engagement.

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