DENVER (KDVR) — On a stormy September afternoon, Wendy O’Leary stood in her kitchen stirring a steamy pot of homemade chicken soup. The scent of carrots and chicken stock wafted through her two-bedroom apartment in Lakewood, a place she now calls home with her two grandsons.
“I wasn’t sure what I was going to feed the boys at one point, you know, but we get it done,” she said.
O’Leary, who said she had been homeless for nearly a year after losing her job during the pandemic and moving to Colorado, spent several months living in a van, sometimes parked in downtown Denver.
“The hardest part was finding a place to park it for the night without getting in trouble or putting myself in a bad situation,” she said.
O’Leary said she struggled to hold on to hope, but she stayed focused on finding a better situation for herself and her relatives.
She reached out to the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless for help.
“It just got to where I was trying to find housing, but it just costs so much,” she said.
O’Leary, who had worked as a waitress and as an in-home care provider, said her unemployment checks “were not cutting it,” so she woke up very early for several days in a row to get in line at the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, where she would ultimately find help.
Denver rapid rehousing service helps homeless
According to the City of Denver, the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless referred O’Leary to Denver’s rapid rehousing service, which helps people who are homeless return to housing. Between January and June, the service model assisted 473 unique Denver households regain housing.
The city was able to place her in an apartment near her grandson’s school in Jefferson County.
“The rapid rehousing program was able to pay her deposit in full, pro-rated rent for July, (and) rent for August and September,” according to Sabrina Allie, who represents the Department of Housing Stability.
Allie said the city also referred O’Leary to Jefferson County, where she was able to receive a housing voucher to help her with rent as she continues to look for stable employment.
The City of Denver budgeted more than $5.1 million to partner with more than a dozen agencies to tackle similar rehousing issues this year. The 2022 budget proposes more than $7.6 million.
In September, the city also set a goal to move 200 people into housing within 100 days with its services and emergency vouchers supplied by the federal government that can be used to help subsidize a person’s rent.
“I think it’s absolutely doable,” said Angie Nelson, the deputy director of Denver’s Department of Housing Stability and Homelessness Resolution. “I think the timeframe creates some new urgency, but we feel like by coming together and really focusing on this goal at hand and making a concerted effort to get folks into housing is critical.”
Midway through the 100 days, Denver announced it was already ahead of its goal, with 143 people in housing.
For another, the journey from homelessness to housing is difficult
Michelle Shell, a homeless woman who said she has been trying to get into housing for close to six years, prepared in September to move into a new place, also with the help of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.
When the Problem Solvers met her, she was living on a Denver sidewalk, packing her belongings into several large containers that resemble city trash bins. City contractors helped her place her personal items into the bins before they hauled the containers into storage, free of charge, for Shell.
Shell told the Problem Solvers she planned to temporarily move to one of the city’s Safe Outdoor Spaces before moving into the housing she had finally secured.
“Six years I’ve waited for that,” Shell told the Problem Solvers as she packed up her belongings a few blocks from a city clean-up near Seventh Avenue and Grant Street, near Capitol Hill.
Shell, who said she once owned her own business, told the Problem Solvers she had been in and out of jail over the years, mostly due to her addiction to pain medication and meth. She said it was hard to stay on track and keep in touch with people who were offering to provide services.
“It’s hard to keep in touch with people – especially phones,” she said. “Just being homeless and kind of reckless sometimes with your stuff. And other people are reckless with your stuff. So, you know, if it’s not in storage, then it might get thrown away, or it might get stolen. So, it’s hard to keep in touch with people.”
Shell said she became homeless after her aunt, with whom she was living, died.
“She had cancer,” said Shell. “And then, we went to shelters, and she passed, and I said, there is no way I could afford her apartment. It was downtown.”
Shell explained that she also dealt with some legal issues and “the kids got taken away.”
Shell said she had been offered services during her time living on the streets, but it was difficult to accept shelter when she was in a relationship. There were no “couples” services available, she indicated.
“I’ve been offered services, but separately,” she said. “So, it’s hard when you’re in a relationship with somebody, and so I wouldn’t take it.”
Shell said separation anxiety complicated her choices.
“Those choices are just so hard, and I don’t think I want to leave my family, which is what I’ve made,” she said.
Shell said getting people off the street also can be complicated by trust issues and memory problems.
“When you’re living in the moment, sometimes the things — schedules, staying on task — is hard,” she said. “I think a lot of people have memory problems and drugs tend to make that a little bit worse, I’m sure.”
She said she understood why so many people in Denver are frustrated when they see people living on the streets.
“I can understand their frustrations. I really can,” she said. “I mean … they pay a lot, and they work hard for their stuff too … I don’t want to be in their front yard. I really don’t, and it’s hard to see them frustrated too, because I know they work really hard. I wasn’t planning on doing this.”
She said a solution that might help some people is to have more designated outdoor spaces for people.
“I think some people don’t want to be inside,” she said. “Maybe a camping solution is not bad. That a little area for them to camp – to be outside if that’s what they want – because some people don’t want to be indoors at all. They have some sort of trauma or something.”
Shell received claim information for her belongings before they were hauled into storage where the city offers to keep them for approximately 60 days.
More than a month after the Problem Solvers met Shell, she appeared to have gone off the radar. Homeless advocates also lost touch.
However, she eventually reconnected with the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless and is currently in housing, according to the organization.