Changing the Conversation About Homelessness | by Sharon A. Knight
The Village Voice Blog – February 14, 2016
There have been many news stories lately blaming legalized marijuana for the influx of homeless people in Denver, putting an increased strain on homeless services. There has been particular attention to the infusion of young adults, coming for access to marijuana, living on the streets and working just enough to keep them high. One of my colleagues, Kim Easton, CEO of Urban Peak, reported that the number of homeless youth had grown 150% since legalization of marijuana. While I think highlighting the plight of the homeless is extremely important, and see a myriad of issues with unaccompanied youth on the streets, I don’t want to lose sight of the bigger picture. In my opinion, these stories, while accurate in their own account, homogenize an extremely complex issue – and also derail the conversation regarding the leading reasons people experience homelessness in the Denver Metro Area; primarily the loss of a job, housing costs or the breakup of a family.[i]
Although the use of marijuana has drawn huge attention in the last year, just a small percentage (14.6) of the homeless in Denver are so as result of substance abuse.[ii] Many more are without a home because they lost their jobs or because of the lack of affordable housing available to them.
In Colorado, a minimum wage worker earns an hourly wage of $8.00.[iii] In the Denver, Aurora, Broomfield Metropolitan area, an hourly wage of $18.46 is needed to afford a two bedroom apartment at Fair Market Rent.[iv] [v]Low wages and job insecurity have made stable, affordable housing out of reach for more than 11,000 people in the Metro Denver area.[vi]
In the Denver Metro Area, 62 percent of people experiencing homelessness are households with children, with nearly 40 percent are single-parent families.[vii]
Warren Village exists so low income, single parent families can achieve sustainable personal and economic self-sufficiency. For our clients, like Jan, the alignment of marijuana and homelessness is not only entirely inaccurate, but unfair and stigmatizing. Jan and her two daughters came to Warren Village almost two years ago when her husband who she describes as a “functioning alcoholic” became verbally and emotionally abusive. At the time Jan, who has a BA degree in Mass Communications, could not continue her job after becoming sick with meningitis. With no support from her husband during her recovery, she struggled emotionally and financially. After escaping to short-term shelters and living with friends to escape the abuse, she came to Warren Village. She is now in school full-time at Regis University working on her Master’s degree.
At Warren Village we acknowledge the complexity of the barriers our families face and that’s why we provide three on-site, integrated programs; safe, affordable housing, a nationally accredited early care and education learning center, and supportive family services to assist with post-secondary education, career exploration and financial literacy skills. Our comprehensive program and supportive services help single parents like Jan by providing tools and resources that enable them to support their families in the future.
Let’s not get derailed or fall into a Fox News parody of the effects of marijuana on homelessness. To have an honest conversation, we need to look at the facts so we can dedicate the resources needed to finding solutions that work for moving people out of homelessness and poverty.
All the best,
Sharon A. Knight
[i] Metro Denver Homeless Initiative. (2013). 2013 Homeless Point-in-Time Study: Seven County Denver Metro Region. Retrieved from http://mdhi.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/2013-Denver-Metro-Point-in-Time.pdf
[iv] National Low Income Housing Coalition. (2014). Out of Reach. Retrieved from http://nlihc.org/sites/default/files/oor/2014OOR.pdf
[v] Fair market rents are gross rent estimates. They include the shelter rent plus the cost of all tenant-paid utilities, except telephones, cable or satellite television service, and internet service.
[vi] Metro Denver Homeless Initiative. (2013). 2013 Homeless Point-in-Time Study: Seven County Denver Metro Region. Retrieved from http://mdhi.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/2013-Denver-Metro-Point-in-Time.pdf