Thursday, October 14, 2010

Out of homelessness' depths

DENVER — Actually doing something about homelessness seems like the stuff of fifth-grade essays or beauty queens’ answers of 25 words or less.

But it takes more than 25 words for Mike George to explain how he sank into the social chasm that nearly left him a corpse on the pavement.

It took more than 25 words for someone from an initiative called Denver’s Road Home to get him to think he could turn his life around.

Mayor John Hickenlooper, in his run for governor, could impress voters by pointing out the success the city-spawned initiative has had. But that would take more than 25 words air time. And he’d be the first to admit how many others had hands in something that’s gone from impressive to stunning.

In five years, the city effort has found jobs for 5,200 homeless people. It claims to have prevented over 5,500 families from becoming homeless. A vast network that includes new units for people without homes, referral for jobs, and drug and mental health treatment made this possible. It is collaboration with a capital “C” fit for Colorado’s flag.

Mike George wasn’t going to be homeless long back when Jerene Petersen from Denver’s Road Home engaged him in conversation. He wasn’t long for the streets, because he was dying. The military veteran had had a heart attack and suffered from congestive heart failure. Age: 44.

“Between sleeping outside and in dirty, abandoned houses, in alleyways, and in and out of jail, pretty much eating anything you can get your hands on — malnutrition, exhaustion — there’s wear and tear on a body,” he said.

George was homeless for 21 years, dating back to the loss of a job and family trouble in his Alabama home. He described the self-perpetuating nature of the problem. No address? No phone? No references? No bed? No bath? No job, pardner. He didn’t start out with a drinking problem. A drinking problem found him, though. Pain needed dulling.

“It’s hard to feel human when the world looks at you like you’re a disease,” he said.

His talk with Petersen, then a member of the Denver Street Collaborative, was where a life-saving turnaround began.

“For the first time in a long time, someone wanted to sit there and have a cup of coffee with me,” he said. He agreed to investigate what Denver’s Road Home offered. And like pulling someone out of a collapsed mine, the life-saving process began, slowly, delicately.

Exchanges like that between Petersen and George wouldn’t have happened without many other conversations involving the city, downtown merchants, charities, churches, and the federal government.

Amber Callender, executive director of Denver’s Road Home, said one of the keys for the initiative has been providing what it calls “permanent supportive” housing for the homeless. The effort has a goal of 3,000 units over 10 years. It is now nearly 2,000.

How possible? Federal dollars, for one, including funds from the 2008 stimulus package and through Housing and Urban Development. Denver’s Road Home, a creation of the city, has matched the public funds with a staggering charitable haul: over $46 million, with Mile High United Way being a key player.

Of that $46 million, $1.5 million came from Rick Schaden, founder of Quiznos’ Subs. The first shop in his restaurant empire, at the corner of 13th and Grant, is across the street from what once was a place where out-of-town state lawmakers stayed within walking distance of Colorado’s gold-domed state capital. Over time, it became the home of pigeons and rats. Mercy Housing, a national nonprofit which fights homelessness, bought the 1927 boarding house with $1.5 million from Schaden’s foundation and big help from Fannie Mae and Denver’s Road Home. Its 66 units serve formerly homeless people, each in various stages of moving toward self-sufficiency.

Driving Denver’s initiative is an appreciation of the cost of homelessness, and the benefits of stopping the cycle.

Federal figures show that each homeless individual ends up costing a community $40,000 a year in services ranging from incarceration to emergency room treatment (Mike George’s heart attack) and more.

It costs roughly $15,000 to house and direct someone toward services that could turn his or her life around.

After leaving the alleys and stairwells behind for detox, and then transitional housing and counseling at a place called Cherokee House, Mike George’s next big step was when he got a job at the Aurora Veterans Home as a staff resident.

Now, to awaken each day is not to face a nightmare in broad daylight.

Four years after a conversation with a person representing a community that decided to care, he said, “I’m still pinching myself.”

It started with a conversation that, by necessity, had to exceed 25 words.

Longtime newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email:

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