Let me state at the outset that I really don’t know the solutions to fix the homelessness problems we see here in Colorado, especially along the Front Range. The issues involved are many and varied, and there is no single “one size fits all” solution. But a recent article in Colorado Politics reminds us that in the era of COVID, homelessness problems become even more complex and nuanced.
In Denver, CP reports that Mayor Michael Hancock’s team is growing increasingly concerned about the challenge of COVID in homeless encampments. Last week, police officers assisted in the removal of homeless people in the Lincoln Park area near the Capitol. Traditional problems associated with homeless camps are challenging enough, but COVID has become what we military types call a “force multiplier,” meaning it makes things much worse. The Denver Department of Public Health and Environment stated that the camp in Lincoln Park created “significant public and environmental health risks.”
The challenge of homelessness was a major problem long before the virus kicked in to make things worse. My own city of Colorado Springs has gone through a number of efforts to deal with the ramifications of homelessness. Like Denver, Colorado Springs has encampments that, even prior to COVID, created a number of challenges. Camps that are cleaned up return, often within a week or so.
I like to think the best of people, and I really don’t think there are really any “bad guys” here. I know of no city leaders who have declared homeless people to be criminals or enemies of the state and such. But what I do see happening is that most of the efforts — or at least the efforts that we know about — are about dealing with the symptoms of homelessness, and not the root causes. For example, here in Colorado Springs, a number of ordinances have been tried that seek to mitigate the visual manifestations of homelessness. The most recent major new regulation here has been an effort to limit panhandling on street corners. Back in 2017, Colorado Springs police started enforcing the new rule that banned panhandling on street medians that were not wide enough to be safely occupied. As this rule focused on safety rather than the act of panhandling, it was able to pass legal muster.
I will admit that prior to this regulation, there were often a number of individuals asking for help at each corner of busy intersections. The new rule has reduced those numbers and may well have prevented some injuries or deaths, but I proffer that it has done little to deal with the root causes of people needing to be on those corners in the first place.
And with the age of COVID, things could very well be about to get much worse. A number of organizations are warning of a “tsunami of evictions” that may well begin in the next few weeks. Individuals dependent on industries hard hit by the virus find themselves in dire straits, made worse by the Congress’s failure to agree on an extension of expanded unemployment benefits. The homeless population in Denver alone may increase by 30%, with jumps of 40% - 45% nationally. Organizations that seek to help the homeless are likely to be overwhelmed by the volume of people needing help in coming weeks.
There is no shortage of proposed solutions to the challenge of homelessness. A number of organizations offer support and ideas to those who find themselves in these difficult situations. Some nations, such as Finland, have largely mitigated the problem, and a number of cities around the world have invested in solutions that have proven largely successful. Of course, these programs predate the COVID crisis, and as it seems to do with every social issue, the virus makes things more challenging.
I began this missive by noting that I don’t have any of the answers. That said, while some mitigation actions — such as cleaning up rat-infested encampments – may well be necessary in the short term, we need to think more long term about the root causes of the homelessness crisis. There were homeless folks before COVID and there will be even more after. I suspect the federal government will be of limited utility on this issue, and so I urge state and local leaders to look to the innovative solutions and to see homelessness as more of a community issue than a national one. There is no single answer to the issue and the innovation found in local governments may be the key as they adapt and transform their policies to the new realities. It won’t be easy but few things worth pursuing ever are.