By Kimberly Preston | Photo by Winston Heuga

We find comfort in our homes, in the ability to lock our belongings up while we’re out, have a place to shower, a warm bed, and a clean bathroom – and a little privacy; all of life’s simplest amenities at our fingertips. But if you’re one of the over 700 people who were reported homeless in Boulder County by the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative (MDHI) in 2016, you don’t have any of these things. Most likely, you aren’t even sure where you’ll be able to find shelter when the first winter storm blankets the Flatirons in snow.

Both the Boulder County Ten Plan to End Homelessness and the city’s Homelessness Strategy and Action Plan say more permanent housing needs to be provided for the chronically homeless in addition to more short-term emergency shelter. The EcoVillage to EcoVillage Community Design Charrette event at Impact Hub Boulder on Thursday, September 29 will bring community members, architects, and designers together to explore solutions to the lack of affordable housing and shelter options.

The Boulder Shelter for the Homeless, which provides overnight shelter from October 1 through April 30, only has a capacity of 160, according to Boulder County’s Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness, causing many people to be turned away. Although Boulder Outreach for Homeless Overflow (BOHO) offers additional shelter from November 15 to March 15, and Emergency Warming Centers with the help of Boulder’s faith based communities, there is still a shortage of space.

“It’s 2016, and we’re letting people die on the street that want to have housing, that can get back to work if they just get a hand up,” said Mike Homner, an advocate with the Facing Homelessness Boulder project, who was homeless for five years. “They’re not asking for a hand out, they’re asking for a hand up.”

Housing First: A Long Term Solution

“Once a person gets housed, they stabilize,” said Homner, who is a strong supporter of the “Housing First” approach that is the foundation of Boulder and Boulder County’s effort to address homelessness.

The theory behind the Housing First model is that as a direct result of being housed, people will experience improvement in their physical and mental health, substance use, and employment. It aims to house homeless individuals quickly without predetermined treatment or preconditions, like sobriety, said the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. This model has been tested in cities like Denver and Seattle, and has proven effective.

In Denver, the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless (CCH) started the Denver Housing First Collaborative (DHFC) in 2003, and after two years, there was a significant reduction of emergency service costs, days incarcerated and incarceration costs, and inpatient visits. They also reported that a large portion of participants improved their health, mental health status, and quality of life, and decreased substance abuse.

Housing First has also already been successful in Boulder, with the 1175 Lee Hill program, said Homner. Lee Hill is a 31 single bedroom unit apartment building that the Boulder Housing Partners opened in 2014 for the chronically homeless. Homner, also a resident and advisory board member of 1175 Lee Hill, said he’s proud that since it opened, there haven’t been any disturbance calls to police and many neighbors who were nervous about a group of homeless living nearby actually became supportive of the program after its smooth start.

But even though Lee Hill has been a success, there are currently no plans to build any more permanent complexes in Boulder, said City Councilwoman Jan Burton. So why isn’t the city planning to expand a program that has proven successful? Lack of funding and challenges in finding available building locations, said Burton.

Yes, funding may be a challenge, but Homner and other advocated also say there isn’t enough support from the community and City Council largely due to a common stigma against the homeless population.

Tiny Homes & Temporary Structures: A Short-Term Solution

Since more permanent housing plans seem to have been placed on the back burner, Boulder City Council has also explored the option of using sites around the city for tiny homes or temporary structures as a short-term solution. In August, City Council toured several proposed sites where these communities could be built. The EcoVillage to EcoVillage Community Design Charrette event on Thursday, September 29, will focus on housing options for these sites, including an ultra-cheap option, Hexayurts.

Hexayurts were invented by Vinay Gupta in 2002, and the versatile structures can be made from standard industrial materials like plastic, polyiso insulation boards, plywood, and even cardboard. Most notably, over a thousand of these shelters have been used at the Burning Man festival in Nevada, said Morey Bean, an architect who organized the Community Design Charrette event. They’re easy to build and can be made relatively cheaply, even costing as little as 100 dollars, according to Gupta.

“They can provide a great temporary shelter that’s insulated from the elements,” and their affordability and ability to be built quickly makes these structures an attractive short-term solution to the areas lack of affordable housing, Bean said.

Whether these sites are used for hexayurts or more permanent structures, like tiny homes, he said these sites would allow people to establish themselves and find comfort in having a home. This feeling of stability is an important factor in the Housing First model that the city has adopted.

Jan Burton said the construction of tiny homes would be beneficial for the homeless community, but also said homeless residents would need to be accountable for the success of the sites. She was complimentary of the transitional housing community of tiny homes Eugene, Oregon, which she toured with City Council in August, because it included residents in the management structure, holding them accountable for the community’s success. Although she said she would be supportive of the idea of these sites being used for tiny homes, she isn’t optimistic that other members of Boulder City Council are supportive enough to go through with anything.

“I don’t think they have the political will to do it. They don’t have the leadership that’s needed,” said Mike Homner, who is also skeptical about city council’s will to continue the discussion around these proposed sites. He said although some city council members, like Jan Burton, are dedicated to improving the issue, others haven’t made the effort to address the issue of housing.

Although there is skepticism about city council’s ability and motivation, Morey Bean said he hopes the Community Design Charrette event can generate more community support and produce designs to prove to city council the viability of different options and solutions.

Facing the Stigma of Homelessness

Although lack of affordable housing is certainly a huge contributing factor to homelessness, it’s hard to deny that the issue is much more complex.

“There’s usually a trauma in their life, in some way shape or form, that caused them to go homeless,” Homner said.

Homner interviews and photographs members of Boulder’s homeless community, and shares their stories on the Facing Homelessness Boulder Facebook page. Through the project, he shares their stories and expresses their humanity in an effort to break the stigma surrounding homeless individuals.

“You’d be surprised who’s out on the street,” he said. While being homeless and also working as an advocate, he said he’s met people with amazing backgrounds and previously very successful careers who were living on the street.

Financial problems, loss of employment, physical and mental health issues, and substance abuse all can be contributing factors, and once a person becomes homeless, it’s extremely hard to pull yourself out, he said.

One of these people is Jessica, a 28-year-old mother of four who has been homeless for six years. She gave birth to her first child when she was 15, and recently had her youngest son in August.

“I had two jobs and was still staying up under a bridge, because I couldn’t afford a house or afford a place to stay,” she said. “It’s hard. It is a daily struggle out here. We all have our ways of getting by. ”

Homner doesn’t deny that crime and substance abuse don’t exist in the homeless community, and says there are some people are skeptical of the system and don’t want help. But he hopes that if people understand what the homeless go through everyday, more Boulder residents will push city council to do more, instead of having the homeless exist in their peripheral vision.

With an issue as complicated as homelessness, there may not be a clear cut perfect solution or simple fix, but there are individuals within our community who are dedicated towards improving our systems and making as many changes as possible to make a difference.

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