Open Letter on Broomfield Homelessness and Housing Instability

I sent this email to the Broomfield City Council and city manager staff earlier today. I did make a slight change to the original for clarity toward the bottom of the message — from saying, “help keep Broomfield residents who earn <60% AMI from becoming housing unstable” to “help keep Broomfield residents who earn <60% AMI from falling prey to housing instability.”

Hi, everyone — hope you were all able to fit in some downtime this weekend! I hope to tune in for at least part of tonight’s planned discussion on “safe camping”. In the meantime, here are my two (Broomfield housing catalyst-inspired) cents about the current moment we’re in and how we might best take advantage of it as a community.

Reality is our friend — As many have recently observed, despite the difficult dynamics, perspectives and disorientation created by this conversation, this is an important and long-overdue topic to be addressing!

Now is the time! — I believe we have a golden opportunity to move from a focus on short-term, “Band-Aid” approaches (warming centers, safe parking, etc.), which many of us acknowledge with frustration are due to a lack of resources, to a focus on long-term, permanent infrastructure toward addressing housing instability and homelessness. We do need “Band-Aids” in the short term, but due to the availability of recovery funds, we may never have another, better opportunity to make significant financial and human-power allocations toward solutions at the “lower” end of Broomfield’s housing-need spectrum.

A two-step way forward

STEP #1 — MEET THE PRESENT NEED — I recently learned from regional partners that Broomfield has received or is about to receive $20 million in COVID recovery money. While I’m sure there are many worthy ways to direct that money, I’m hoping at least 10 percent or $2 million of it will be allocated toward immediate housing supports for our most vulnerable neighbors. Assuming a $2 million allocation, and in light of Monday’s planned discussion, here’s how it could usefully be spent:

  • $500,000 for Hotel Vouchers (& Safe Camping) — Last winter, the City and County of Broomfield and Broomfield FISH paid about $100,000 of combined COVID-relief funds to a local hotel to provide temporary severe cold weather shelter for 40 unduplicated, unhoused families and individuals. Local partners currently plan to implement a hybrid shelter model for this coming winter — hotel vouchers for families with children and our most vulnerable neighbors, and warming centers for other unhoused residents. But that’s based on the understanding that only about $41,000 is leftover from last winter and available for use during the cold weather months of 2021-2022. Anticipating we’ll continue to see an increase in the number of local residents who are unhoused (due to the expiration of the CDC’s eviction moratorium and other factors), I suggest (1) allocating $200,000 for 2021-2022 hotel vouchers, (2) placing $200,000 in some sort of escrow fund to accrue interest for use in future years, and (3) to provide our police department and community partners with a legitimate option for residents living outside in tents or other structures, by allocating $100,000 for a six-month safe-spot camping experiment. It was one of the greatest privileges of my life to help run the Code Blue Warming Center during the winter of 2019-2020. That collective effort is a great example of how faith communities, residents and local government can come together on short notice to meet an important need! However, I believe a significant investment in hotel vouchers is warranted in this current moment. Hotel vouchers are the preferable solution to either warming centers or a possible safe camping program, because they’re more:
  • Dignity-affirming — A hotel room or suite > a cot in a large gymnasium or a tent in a field.
  • Trauma-informed — A hotel room or suite with a private bath > sleeping in the same common room or exposure to the elements.
  • Logistically preferable — Speaking from experience with both voucher and warming center efforts, hotel voucher coordination requires fewer human resources and city/non-profit staff-hours than warming center coordination in terms of paperwork, volunteers, schedules, setup, takedown, laundry, etc. Since the hard-to-fill volunteer warming center coordinator position is currently vacant and no one among city or local non-profit staff have experience with safe camping, the bulk of available funding would best be spent by returning to (and enhancing) the hotel voucher program we’ve already begun.
  • COVID-safe and safer overall — Non-congregant housing presents a far lesser risk of COVID transmission than warming-center congregant housing or shared outdoor spaces. This remains an important consideration in light of the spread of the COVID delta variant. From a public health standpoint, temporary hotel-rooms for separate households help prevent transmission of the common flu and other maladies spread through the sharing of common spaces. From a personal security standpoint, they help mitigate conflicts between individuals, episodes of social anxiety and trauma-triggered reactions from past congregant shelter experiences.
  • Supportive of the local economy — Last year, at least one local hotel closed down due to the pandemic, but our hotel voucher program helped our main hotel partner stay open and continue to employ staff who would otherwise have been let go or furloughed.
  • Appropriate for a sub-urban context — Because Denver and Aurora have thousands of unhoused residents it’s relatively easy for their new Safe-Spot Camping programs to find individuals willing to sign up and abide by on-site regulations. However, a different dynamic is at play in Broomfield. Our latest estimate of 200 total unhoused residents includes perhaps one or two dozen individuals, at the most, who are currently “rough camping” somewhere within our borders. I know some of them personally. As a rule, they value their privacy, stay as invisible as they can and want as little contact as possible with local agencies or services. They are here because they’ve had bad experiences at city shelters, they have a strong connection to Broomfield, and they consider it relatively “friendly” to people in their situation. While a few might be interested in a safe-spot camping tent, they likely wouldn’t want it pitched in close proximity to others’ and they would strenuously resist being forced to do so. A few may agree to stay at a safe-spot camping site, and for that reason it’s a worthwhile temporary solution to consider. For some who are chronically unhoused it might be an easier transitional option than a hotel room, in fact, but my sense is that most wouldn’t be interested.
  • Lower visibility — My understanding is that one of the primary reasons this conversation is happening is because “rough tent-camping” is more physically visible than ever in Broomfield. Allowing for the possibility of sheltering the majority of our neighbors who are unhoused in hotel rooms and sheltering a smaller number of interesting individuals in an approved safe-camping environment, would significantly mitigate that reality.
  • More bang for our buck — I know there’s hesitancy to pay for “rough campers” to stay in hotel rooms, but they have a greater chance of finding stability and working toward permanent housing from a hotel room than they do from a warming center or a tent. More stability means fewer trips to the emergency room, fewer contacts with the community and police officers, better sleep and personal hygiene, and better connections with both local services and regional resources. The issuing of hotel vouchers, especially, with appropriate guidelines and restrictions in place (strong connections to Broomfield, etc.) recognizes basic human needs and is the most efficient available use of relief funds and person-hours in response to this challenge. Safe-spot camping is a viable secondary and temporary alternative.
  • $1,000,000 for a Local Hotel Wing or Building — While we certainly need to consider temporary emergency housing solutions for this summer and the coming cold weather months, we also need to realize two things: (1) Many current Broomfield residents who do currently live in housing face housing instability, and (2) beyond 2021-2022, our growing community will likely see more residents become unhoused or housing unstable. The most strategic thing we can do now, in my opinion, is purchase a structure already used for lodging (as in a wing or building owned by a local hotel) or a standalone structure that can be converted for use as (1) a temporary emergency shelter with hotel-style rooms (during severe weather, for domestic violence victims and their families, etc.) and (2) transitional housing for vetted individuals and families who are ready to take the next step toward permanent housing. Around 60-75 rooms would be ideal. This would not be a traditional shelter. Instead, it would be divided into separate floors — one for temporary emergency housing (with traditional hotel rooms) and one for transitional housing (with traditional hotel suites). Important features would include live-on-site “floor supervisors” (vetted individuals with lived experience of homelessness who provide accountability and oversight 24/7), and ongoing case management provided by partner-agency and city-employed case managers. Assuming that an appropriate structure could be obtained for around $5 million, the above suggested $1 million allocation could be used as a down payment on a loan financed by a local bank or it could be used to lease the structure while maintaining the hotel’s infrastructure and staff for direct room management, cleaning, maintenance, etc.
  • $500,000 for City/County Liaisons — As a community of 72,000-and-counting we desperately need to expand and enhance our on-the-ground capacity to connect with people in need, especially in regard to housing. For that reason, relief/recovery monies should fund a TEAM OF FIVE FULL-TIME LIAISONS-to-unhoused-and-housing-unstable-residents at $100,000 each (including salary and benefits/overhead) to:
    • Begin, maintain and enhance the above efforts;
    • Provide ongoing accountability and case management in conjunction with support from Broomfield Public Health, the Department of Human Services, school district representatives, AND local courts dealing with families in the process of being evicted;
    • Foster collaboration with local, regional and state partners; and,
    • Conduct research and development of new and ongoing sources of funding to meet temporary and transitional housing needs.

STEP #2 — LOOK TO THE FUTURE — In addition to these above allocations, we should immediately make plans to create and fund a local, tiered housing voucher program to help keep Broomfield residents who earn <60% AMI from falling prey to housing instability. (HUD considers households that spend 30-50 percent of their monthly income on housing to be “housing unstable.” It considers those that spend 50 percent or more of their monthly income on housing to be officially “at risk of homelessness.” My sense is that A LOT of Broomfield residents fall in that category, although I don’t have an accurate current number to cite.)

  • Idea: Pattern this program after HUD’s Section 8 housing voucher program, but restrict it to Broomfield residents living in Broomfield County.
  • Annual Budget: $60 million — $15 million from usable federal, state or private foundation grants; $15 million from local banks; $15 million from local businesses, non-profits and faith communities; and $15 million from the city/county budget (or what would amount to 3.4% of the current $448 million budget). It’s more than reasonable to spend $3.40 out of every $100 of the municipal budget on such an important priority as affordable housing — how we allocate our money reflects what we collectively value.
  • Standards: Assuming that…
    • Vouchers would be income-based (up to 60% AMI, for example) and capped at a maximum program contribution of, say, $1,000/month;
    • A qualifying family’s gross income is on average $2,400/month, and adopting the practice that a family’s portion of housing expenses (rent, utilities, etc.) should be fixed at 30% of its income — in my hypothetical example, $800/month — the program would pay an average of $800/month or $9,600/year per qualified family. Divided by the total $60 million annual budget, that means 6,250 Broomfield households would qualify for a local housing voucher! In combination with appeals to and partnerships with local landlords about the community benefit of renting their properties for slightly less than current market value, this program could help us make truly significant strides toward safe, sound, affordable housing for every family and individual in Broomfield.

Those two key numbers — $2 million and $60 million — represent a lot of money, but, all things considered, they are both attainable and proportional to the significant need in our community.

Thanks for your time and consideration! I’m happy to discuss this proposal at further length.

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