Background of SAFER
Colorado is experiencing a homelessness crisis due to a combination of rising housing costs, increased behavioral health needs, underfunded programs to support successful re-entry from the justice system, and a lack of supportive housing.
Source: United States Interagency Council on Homelessness
Currently there are almost 10,000 people experiencing homelessness in Colorado, and even more Colorado residents are unstably housed and on the verge of homelessness. Many of these individuals have mental illness, substance use challenges, or other disabilities that make it extremely difficult to secure and retain housing without robust supportive services.
Arapahoe County, excluding Aurora, has no emergency shelter, coordinated homeless service program, or navigation system to address this overwhelming need. Meanwhile, individuals experiencing chronic homelessness disproportionately utilize costly resources like hospital emergency room visits and first responders.
A study by the Colorado Department of Public Safety, which included Arapahoe County Detention Facility, showed:
- 80% of respondents reported being homeless in the year prior to their incarceration.
- Over sixty-four percent of those who reported homelessness also reported a mental health diagnosis.
As individuals are released from jails to homelessness, they are very often in need of access to mental health and substance use care, supports, and services—as well as the housing that is essential for their successful return to the community.
- Of the 477 individuals speedily released from Arapahoe County Detention Facility due to COVID, 191 were homeless. Of those 191 individuals released to homelessness, 116 individuals needed mental health care and 75 needed substance use treatment.
Homelessness is both a public safety and a public health issue, especially during COVID-19. Homelessness is linked to sustained deterioration of mental and physical health. These issues increased exponentially during COVID-19 when individuals with mental health needs were being released to homelessness from our county jail. SAFERS’ short-term shelter project is the first step to improving their situation while connecting them to more appropriate and longer-term assistance and solutions.
These high-needs and at-risk homeless individuals with mental health conditions, who have contact with first responders or are being released from our county jail, have always fallen outside present resources and funding streams. COVID-19 has exacerbated this lack of funds and resources. Supportive housing services are urgently needed for this population and are not reimbursable by Medicaid.
An Arapahoe County behavioral health group had previously been working on a cold weather release problem. Several individuals from that group responded to this immediate need for shelter for this vulnerable disabled population of homeless individuals unable, without assistance and support, to follow public health guidelines. This small group was comprised of South Metro Fire and Emergency, several private attorneys, a social worker, and a supervisor from All Health Network (the local community mental health center), all of whom collectively pooled personal funds to allow SAFER to be able to start providing emergency shelter at motels/hotels.
Then, a motel in the community was found willing to address this community’s need by renting rooms through vouchers, and the SAFER Fund was created under the nonprofit umbrella of Arapahoe County Foundation to accept local donations to address the short-term housing needs of disabled individuals with behavioral health issues who were homeless due to COVID-19. As a first step to address this major health need for these individuals and our county, short-term motel vouchers were approved.
In collaboration with All Health Network and Arapahoe County, SAFER applied for two separate grants to United Way – Help Colorado Now COVID grants. Arapahoe County was awarded $25,000 and All Health was awarded $12,500 to fund vouchers for SAFER. Since then, AllHealth Network in collaboration with SAFER has received more than $100,000 from Arapahoe County COVID CARES for motel/hotel vouchers. All grant funds are limited to motel/hotel vouchers. Hornbuckle Foundation provides peer coaching to participants and the consortium of nonprofits with Change the Trend help provide food, hygiene, and other support.
SAFER has now partnered with Mental Health Colorado to take the next steps beyond emergency sheltering by planning and beginning to implement more appropriate and sustainable bridge housing while working towards the long-term goal of permanent supportive housing.
In the first year of operations, SAFER provided 51 individuals with safe shelter as the first step in helping the most vulnerable to stay alive, to follow public health guidelines, and to access case management. Collaboration among Arapahoe County, AllHealth Network, and other partners allowed SAFER to locate, shelter, and engage vulnerable individuals in health care, supports, and services.
SAFER case managers assisted clients in enrolling in or applying for Medicaid and food stamps and offered other appropriate services. SAFER collaborated with a consortium of non-profits and businesses to provide weekly food boxes and at least one fresh hot meal a week in addition to microwavable meals. In addition to the longer-term vouchers that are the mainstay of the program, SAFER also collaborated with Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office co-responders to shelter individuals who needed emergency short-term sheltering due to mental health crisis or inclement weather.
SAFER has facilitated the efforts of county partners to take first steps for a sheltering/housing project serving this very vulnerable population where none existed before. Continued funding and collaboration among SAFER; all of SAFER’s partners including Mental Health Colorado; Arapahoe County; the Division of Housing, the Department of Local Affairs; and private foundations are ongoing.