Homelessness in Denver is rising. According to the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative’s annual point-in-time count, the number of unhoused people in the area increased by 31.7% from January 2022 to January 2023.
Denver’s new mayor, Mike Johnston, has said that sweeps of homeless camps aren’t a solution to the problem. But his administration conducted its first camp sweep in early August, displacing dozens of people. So, what can be done to aid the rising population of those experiencing homelessness in Colorado’s largest metro area?
Professor Daniel Brisson, director of the Center on Housing and Homelessness Research (CHHR), is working to answer that question. Brisson’s work is one piece of a growing effort by DU faculty across disciplines to address the full cycle of housing in the Mountain West.
“People should be paying attention, because it’s just too expensive to afford housing in Denver right now, and as a result of it, we’re treating people that we care about inhumanely,” says Brisson, a professor in DU’s Graduate School of Social Work.
Brisson says the Center is similar to a modestly sized research think tank, providing research, evaluation, training and technical assistance to entities looking for information about poverty, housing and homelessness.
The Center also partners with students in the school of social work, allowing them to volunteer or work with CHHR in a social work or research capacity while obtaining their degrees.
“I often think about it as a medical school model on a large university campus,” Brisson says. “People are in med school there, and while they’re doing some of the work, they’re also getting training on how to be a doctor. I think we’re doing something similar with researchers and social work.”
The CHHR is working with the Denver Basic Income Project (DBIP) on a two-part research initiative, studying the qualitative and quantitative impact of different levels of monetary distribution on the lives of unhoused people in Denver.
The program randomly sorts each of the 807 participants into one of three groups. Based on the group they’re sorted into, each participant receives one of three distributions of money: Group A receives 12 monthly cash payments of $1,000 over the span of a year, totaling $12,000; Group B receives an initial deposit of $6,500 and 11 monthly cash payments of $500, totaling $12,000; and Group C receives 12 monthly cash payments of $50, totaling $600.
“One of the main things our research is going to uncover is, ‘Are there differences in the impact of different types of payments for people experiencing homelessness?’” Brisson says. “Do folks in payment Group A or B have substantially better outcomes because of the larger cash distribution? Maybe. We’ll test that hypothesis.”
CHHR is also conducting a qualitative analysis of the DBIP project, having chosen eight participants from each cash distribution group to talk to over the course of the year-long study. At the six-month mark, these participants filled out surveys and answered questions about their quality of life, including indicators of health, financial and housing stability, child welfare and more.
The Center released a mid-term report in June. It found that participants used the distributed cash to prioritize their hierarchy of needs, covering transportation and hygiene costs as well as catching up on bills and using the additional funds to make bigger life changes like purchasing a car.
“I have gotten into some housing, and it’s helped me a lot with doing that to help me pay off a lot of my debt,” one Group B participant said.
Stephanie Locke is a doctoral social work student and a research assistant with CHHR. She contributed to the mid-term report and was pleased with the results of the surveys.
“I think there’s an expectation that people who are experiencing homelessness, if they aren’t monitored with their spending, they may be frivolous with it,” Locke says. “But I was happy to see that our data showed that they are using it to thrive and meet their basic needs.”
Locke says a big part of the work that she does in gathering data and talking to people involved in CHHR’s research is using inclusive language.
“I prefer to use the terms ‘people experiencing homelessness’ and ‘people who are unhoused’ with a people-first perspective; not labeling this person as being homeless or unhoused, but acknowledging that they are a person first, and they are in these circumstances,” she says. “‘Homelessness’ has a lot of stigma attached to it. We’re moving more towards acknowledging this population as being ‘unhoused’ because it separates them from some of that stigma.”
At the end of the day, Brisson says, he believes that the housing crisis and homelessness is an issue of humanity.
“I’m not okay with members of my community sleeping outside in 20-degree weather, or sleeping in an emergency shelter where they don’t feel safe, or sleeping in their cars so they can go to work the next day and having a police officer shine a light at three in the morning into their car and say, ‘I’m sorry, you can’t sleep here or park here, you need to move on,’” Brisson reflects. “And this person goes to work the next day drowsy and uncomfortable because they had no place to sleep.”