Academics & Research / Fall 2016

Students and faculty find innovative ways to combat homelessness


A worker from Peak Thrift, a thrift store founded by EMBA students from the Daniels College of Business. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

Every morning — winter, spring, summer and fall — scores of people wake up under tarps on the sidewalks outside of the Denver Rescue Mission. Later each day, hundreds line up for a meal outside of Denver’s Salvation Army. And on a typical night, 40 young people fill the beds at the Urban Peak youth shelter in south Denver. If the center had more beds, those would be filled as well.

That’s a snapshot of Denver’s homeless problem — a problem that has persisted for a number of reasons, among them low-wage jobs that make it tough to rise out of poverty, a heated real estate market that discourages construction of affordable housing, and the enduring epidemics of mental illness and substance abuse.

Still, plenty of people in Denver remain dedicated to solving the problem. And DU — in keeping with its dedication to the public good — has sponsored numerous efforts to help address the issue. In the last year alone:

  • Students at the Sturm College of Law released an in-depth report on the financial and human costs of laws that criminalize homelessness in Colorado.
  • MBA students at the Daniels College of Business helped launch a nonprofit thrift store that will help fund programs at Urban Peak, create jobs for homeless youth and provide affordable clothing to people in need.
  • Professors at the Graduate School of Social Work gave cameras to homeless youth and helped them document their lives to increase their sense of social cohesion.

Following is a closer look at those innovative projects.


Finding a voice

Housing and employment figures provide a basic picture of homelessness and poverty in Colorado, but there’s a deeper toll not recorded in official statistics: the emotional and psychological cost of living without a stable home. The problem is particularly acute for homeless teenagers, who must navigate the tumultuous changes of adolescence while learning to survive on the streets. Growing up homeless can produce a sense of profound isolation, one that Kim Bender and Anamika Barman-Adhikari, professors in DU’s Graduate School of Social Work, found a creative way to address last fall.

With a grant from the University’s Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning (CCESL), the professors created what Bender calls “a photo voice intervention,” providing homeless youth with cameras and photography training so they could document and share their own lives. Bender and Barman-Adhikari then surveyed the kids over the course of three months to test whether the practice increased their sense of belonging and social cohesion. (It did.) The researchers recruited a group of young people from the Urban Peak youth shelter, gave them tablets and hired a professional photographer to teach them basic photo skills. They then dispatched the youths to produce photos and captions on themes of their choosing, which the group met weekly to discuss.

Bender was surprised by the level of symbolism and sophistication in the young people’s photographs. She had expected them to focus on their need for concrete things like housing and jobs, but their photos often conveyed deeper emotional needs.

“Their basic needs did come through, but they were seen through a lens of higher-order needs, like, ‘I need a purpose,’ or ‘I need society to believe that I have value,’” Bender says. “The photos became much more symbolic and abstract than I expected.”

A photo made by Gwen Stacy, a 21-year-old transgender woman from Mississippi who lived at the Urban Peak shelter during the project, is a case in point. Her image depicts a plastic chair in a room at the shelter, framed by two metal bunk beds and backlit by white light from the room’s single window.

“I’m the chair, and I’m in the room, and I feel alone,” reads Stacy’s caption. “I’m by myself and no one understands me. The chair is dilapidated, and it’s been worn, and that’s how I feel. But at the same time I’m still the chair that’s able to stand whenever the weight drags me down.”

Stacy, who entered the foster care system at age 6, says the photo symbolizes her ability to stand strong and endure life’s difficulties. There have been many: Her father beat her, she says, for expressing her transgender identity as a child. She struggled with cocaine and alcohol abuse as a young teenager, and was once kicked out of a foster home for dressing in women’s clothing.

“I got my voice out there, and now people know how I feel about being homeless,” Stacy says. “I went through some dark times, but I still made it out.”


The criminal cost

What if Colorado cities spent huge amounts of money ticketing, prosecuting and jailing homeless people for petty crimes like loitering, trespassing and camping, instead of putting those funds toward building adequate housing for all? Suspecting that was the case, a group of students at DU’s Sturm College of Law set out in 2015 to study the problem.

The team released its report, “Too High a Price: What Criminalizing Homelessness Costs Colorado,” in February 2016. It reveals that Colorado’s 76 largest cities combined have more than 350 anti-homeless ordinances on the books. Under these laws, homeless people are cited far more frequently than the general population: Fort Collins authorities issue two citations per year for every homeless person in the city, for instance, while 30 percent of all citations issued in Grand Junction are for offenses related to homelessness. Boulder cites its homeless population under its camping ban more than any other city — at a rate of two citations for every homeless citizen.

All that enforcement is expensive: Between 2010 and 2014, Denver alone spent more than $3.2 million enforcing five laws that ban things like camping and trespassing. The human cost is likely to be even greater.

“Giving people tickets that can’t be paid creates warrants for their arrest, which lands them in jail,” says Nantiya Ruan, a professor at Sturm who supervised the production of the report. “Those people then have a criminal record that they often have to put on their housing and employment applications, which makes it less likely that those applications will be accepted. This criminalization continues the cycle of poverty.”


A social enterprise that lifts all boats

Work, for many people, is a basic way of finding meaning and belonging in life. Yet many homeless people struggle to hold down jobs, thwarted by their lack of a stable living situation or problems with mental health or substance abuse. In early 2016, a thrift store opened in Denver’s Chaffee Park neighborhood that will help combat the problem by employing homeless youth, providing free or affordable clothing through a voucher program, and generating revenue that helps support Urban Peak.

The store, Peak Thrift, is the product of a long-running collaboration between Urban Peak and the Executive MBA (EMBA) program at DU’s Daniels College of Business. Beginning in 2012, a number of enrollees in the EMBA program — an 18-month, part-time curriculum for mid- to senior-level professionals seeking to strengthen their business skills — helped Urban Peak conceive the idea of a social enterprise business that would earnmoney for the organization. They tested ideas from a screen-printing shop to a food truck before finally deciding on a thrift store. Two EMBA students in particular, Andy Taylor (MBA ’14) and Jim Hayes (MBA ’14), incorporated the thrift store idea into four of their business classes between 2013 and 2014, conducting a marketing feasibility study, writing a three-year business plan and providing Urban Peak with a range of other startup help, all as part of class projects. Taylor and Hayes met monthly with the Urban Peak board of directors for 15 of the 18 months they spent at Daniels. Just before graduation, they passed the task of finding a location for the thrift store to the next class of Daniels EMBA students. Peak Thrift opened in Chaffee Park in January 2016.

“We’ve recently hired on three young adults who were previously living in shelters or on the street,” says Peak Thrift general manager Kathryn Westphal. “Having an employer that’s supportive of the hurdles they are trying to overcome is very important. We are a bit more accommodating than the typical employer might be.”

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