Homelessness: Early Intervention Teams offer help that’s not always wanted

Problem Solvers

DENVER (KDVR) — The effort to combat homelessness on city streets often begins with Denver’s Early Intervention Teams. The outreach workers offer resources to those living in encampments before they become the target of a sweep.

The Problem Solvers spent a morning in September with outreach worker Steve Sanders as he visited homeless tents offering help to get a shelter bed, food stamps, housing vouchers or documents like a social security card.

“I can’t do all the work. My team can’t do all the work. We need to be met halfway,” said Sanders, who admitted not everyone he meets wants help.

Denver outreach workers make about 1,555 encounters every month, but about two-thirds or 1,000 contacts are with people they see more than once a month.

Sanders said success relies on persistence.

“You never know when someone, or whenever the day is when someone decides to take you up on the services,” Sanders said.

A city spokesman told the Problem Solvers that on average, 15 chronically homeless people are placed in permanent housing each month. Of the eight tents, FOX31 watched Sanders visit, four campers declined help, two said they were waiting on documents like a social security card, one camper asked for help with food stamps and one asked about a housing voucher — but none wanted to go to a shelter.

“I think there is a certain freedom to living out on the streets,” said Jacob Wessley, director of outreach and engagement for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.

When asked why so many homeless people seem to prefer living on the streets of Denver to a shelter that has a roof and a bathroom, Wessley said it can come down to having a more permanent spot for their personal belongings.

“You have to imagine what we are walking by is everything in the world these people own, usually contained within a tent. At a shelter, you often have space for two or three backpacks worth, and then you have to carry that everywhere.”

Wessley said Denver shelters are trying to switch to a 24-hour model and convince skeptical campers that they and their belongings are safe in a shelter, but the spread of COVID-19 indoors hasn’t helped perceptions.

“I think housing is the solution,” Wessley said.

Last year, Wesley said the Denver Outreach Street Collaborative helped house 350 people, but funding and apartments are limited. He said the city should be applauded for the city’s two sanctioned tent cities, known as Safe Outdoor Spaces, but both are full.

“If you and I walked around right now with keys to apartments, we’re not going to have only 20% of people say yes, we’re going to have, I would bet, almost 100%, if not 100% acceptance rate. But that’s what we’re able to do,” Wessley said.

With contributions in reporting from Carisa Scott, Serena Ung and DJ Summers.

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