Discussion is healthy with regard to addressing the issue of homelessness in Denver, but we need to reframe the discussion.
On June 27, in an effort to balance the portrayal of interrelations between police officers and individuals experiencing homelessness, The Denver Post editorial board highlighted the Denver Police Department’s commitment to the members of our community who have been without shelter during the first year of Denver’s urban camping ban. I want to reinforce gratitude for this commitment, as well as for the commitment of all those who reach out to support people who experience being homeless.
The problem is the camping ban is not the context in which we, as a community, should discuss how to support our most vulnerable neighbors who are without shelter. The ban was implemented at a contentious point in time. It will not solve homelessness. The camping ban can and should, as in this instance, prompt dialogue focusing on longer-term solutions to ensure our neighbors have shelter and feel a part of our community.
“The Denver Camping Ban: A Report from the Street,” included four recommendations regarding homelessness. Two focused specifically on the camping ban and have received editorial attention. The other two — those upon which I encourage our community to focus — could ultimately address resource gaps in a way to make the camping ban irrelevant.
These two recommendations are: to identify a stable funding source to increase affordable housing and human services, and to identify stable funding to ensure shelter for people with different needs throughout the year along with prevention strategies. Denver is one of the few large cities without a committed source of funding to support those who are homeless, as they seek to find a place where they feel safe and stable enough in the community to call home.
I challenge Denver’s residents to discuss homelessness as an issue affecting each of us. We all know someone who has either experienced homelessness or who was on the verge of being homeless.
As an example, several artists who have experienced homelessness are currently sharing their complex stories through the “Not Exactly” exhibit at RedLine Gallery. Those who escaped being homeless most likely overcame it due to a strong support network. A similar support network should be available for the 2,923 people in Denver struggling with homelessness identified during the 2013 Metro Denver Homeless Initiative Point in Time Survey, including the 50 percent who are families with children, the 34 percent who are women, the 8 percent who are unaccompanied youth and the 11 percent who are veterans.
The support network should include the police, shelter providers, mental health professionals, elected officials, government and community-based organizations, businesses, neighbors, and those who know homelessness first hand.
Together, we can address homelessness as a complex humanitarian issue to be solved through a sustained long-term approach. This requires getting to know one another, including those affected by homelessness, and engaging in dialogue about what homelessness is, its root causes, and how we can address it through our community’s assets. Tremendous opportunity lies ahead if we come together to build a system of prevention, human service support, shelter, and affordable housing through a sustained commitment and funding.
Monica Buhlig is director of basic human needs for The Denver Foundation.