Multi-million dollar complex promises help for Lakewood’s unhoused

From left to right: Jefferson County Commissioner Tracy Kraft-Tharp, Jefferson Center CEO and President Kiara Kuenzler, Lakewood Mayor Adam Paul, Jeff Huggett of Dominion and Scott Bryan of Bryan Construction ceremoniously break ground for the Jefferson Center’s supportive housing complex on Nov. 29.

LAKEWOOD | Marshall Moody and Paul Johnson sat under a tree in Lakewood beside the roar of cars on West Colfax Avenue. It was a sunny September day. After losing his home in public housing, Johnson was wrestling with what to do next, while Moody took a break for the afternoon from hunting for a place to stay. Both have been unhoused, on and off, in Lakewood for years.

“Police show up to tell you to leave, but don’t have an answer as to where we can go,” Moody said.

“When (the city) does give you housing, it’s like a setup for failure,” Johnson added. A setup because of the difficulty of keeping to the rules at various shelters and public housing, such as curfews and not being allowed to have alcohol, and the lack of tolerance if they are broken.

“I shouldn’t have to follow any more rules than others staying in the apartments have to,” Johnson continued.

Now, in the cold, snowy, November weather, the Jefferson Center — a non-profit supplier of mental healthcare across the metro area — will soon be bringing what it says is a partial solution to Lakewood: a 40-unit permanent supportive housing complex. It broke ground on Nov. 29 and is expected to be finished in spring of 2024.

“The Solid Ground project will be a fresh start for those without stable housing,” said Jefferson Center CEO and President Kiara Kuenzler at a ground-breaking ceremony.

The causes of homelessness are varied and complex. Factors range from job loss to mental illness and addiction issues. Another main factor is the rising costs of homes and rentals, leading to the idea of “housing first.”

The approach, an older idea but recently gaining steam in Colorado, aims to prioritize getting people experiencing homelessness into permanent housing, ending their homelessness, according to advocates like the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Within that approach is permanent supportive housing, which provides free services for those that may not have been able to support themselves alone.

Jefferson Center’s complex will work around the concept.

“We have a lot of folks that are homeless and chronically homeless with disabilities that really need additional support to maintain an independent living,” said Taylor Clepper, director of navigation and housing services for the Jefferson Center and project manager for the complex. “A lot of what we have noticed through doing this work is a real gap in terms of this level of care, this permanent supportive housing level of care.”

Because of that, the main people the complex will work to help are those who are homeless with a “disabling condition.”

“It’s low barrier,” Clepper said. “I’d love to take the folks that don’t match to other housing, or haven’t been successful in other housing situations. For folks with criminal backgrounds that may have trouble getting into housing, this is going to be the lowest barrier housing we can make based on our vouchers.”

People will be accepted into the complex through vouchers from the Jefferson Center. The Center manages over 400 housing vouchers for the state Division of Housing, which uses a metro-wide coordinated entry system and vulnerability factors. As Clepper explained, more factors means more likely to get matched with the housing.

The other half of the Center’s vouchers, and the system for people to get into the complex, are through Foothills Regional Housing, the public/private regional housing authority, which she said gives a bit more leeway — a disabling condition might not have to be a federal disability through social security, but could simply be a provider stating a person has a disabling condition.

Homeless advocates, such as Terese Howard of HAND, have critiqued the coordinated entry system and vouchers though, calling it a “homeless industrial complex.”

“The expectation that you go to a shelter and get a case manager and then get housing is just not reality,” said Howard, elaborating that many people don’t feel safe going to a shelter, and the little amount of space and case managers there are at these shelters. “You’re expected to go through this homeless system, and your chances are very low, and yet there is no willingness to admit that.”

According to the county’s annual Point in Time Count — criticized by some advocates like Howard and the National Alliance to End Homelessness as a vast undercount — about 500 people were homeless across Jefferson County on a single night in January. Of those 500, about 200 were unsheltered, or literally on the streets. The others were in emergency shelters, or transitional housing.

There are only 40 units though, and as Clepper explained, the Center will be working with the city and others to find those who are they find to be the most vulnerable.

“Realistically, as we get closer, we will be working very closely with our community partners, specifically working with our regional homeless outreach workers, those really in the trenches and know who may benefit from that type of housing,” she said.

People like Moody and Johnson, who do not have many “vulnerability factors,” would not necessarily be helped by this complex, as they wouldn’t be first in line. Johnson’s mistrust of social workers, who he said has made him feel guilty for using his VA benefits in the past, also causes him to avoid outreach workers.

The complex will operate like an apartment building, with tenants paying rent and signing a lease. The vouchers are attached to the unit itself and guarantee affordable housing, roughly 30% of the tenant’s income, with the difference being paid for by the Division of Housing or Foothills. The tenant could pay nothing if they have no income, or full rent if they’re on a higher income scale, Clepper explained.

In terms of costs, the building itself is being paid for by $13.5 million in state tax credits from the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program, which the Center received in March of 2021. For ongoing services, Clepper elaborated that developer fees, Medicaid and insurance payments and rent income will fund them, along with some state and private funding.

As to how permanent “permanent supportive housing” is, Clepper said it’s independent living. “This could be somebody’s house for the rest of their life — if this is the appropriate level of care, and this is what they’re needing.”

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