The Colorado Department of Human Services (CDHS) has created a new position in an effort to focus in on the towering dilemma of homelessness within the state. The director of homelessness initiatives will coordinate between existing services and programming in hopes of assisting a greater number of people to secure and maintain housing.
Cole Chandler is the first to take the reins as CDHS’ director of homelessness initiatives. He has a history of helping people living without housing, which includes founding the Colorado Village Collaborative — an organization that “provides dignified alternative sheltering for more than 200 people … per night through a network of tiny home villages and safe outdoor spaces throughout Denver,” reads a press release. In five years, Chandler grew that organization from a one-person operation with a $150,000 budget to a staff of 30 with a $5 million budget.
“I entered into that [homeless] community and that community’s struggle became my own struggle,” Chandler told The Sopris Sun. “I’m excited about stepping into a larger role where I can have a broader state-wide impact at the policy and system level.”
The Department of Local Affairs already has a director position focused on homelessness. Furthermore, Governor Jared Polis recently hired a special advisor on homelessness.
“Collectively, these positions suggest the magnitude of the challenge,” stated Chandler, “and the prioritization Colorado has placed to strategically coordinate a homelessness response.”
His first task is to develop a strategic plan aimed at preventing homelessness for human services clients — not a small feat. How? Because many factors can lead to being unhoused, it often takes more than one solution to successfully get someone into — and sustain — reliable, long-term housing.
When it comes to the various causes of homelessness, Chandler said, “I always ground that conversation in the reality that homelessness is a housing problem. … We don’t have enough housing available to everyone and costs are extremely high.”
According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s most recent gap report, in Colorado there are more than 160,000 extremely-low-income households along with a housing deficit of more than 114,000 units.
Once people find housing, various governmental and nongovernmental services can help maintain that security. “Housing plus supportive services ends homelessness,” Chandler plainly stated.
For fiscal year 2022-23, CDHS has a goal to connect 75% of Coloradans who receive cash assistance and identify as unhoused, or at risk, with housing assistance programs.
“About 4,500 people that are on cash assistance in the state on an annual basis self identify as unhoused,” explained Chandler. His objective is to connect those families and individuals with resources which suit their needs.
While pointing out macro causes, Chandler acknowledges individual circumstances can lead to homelessness. Reported causes range from loss of a job, medical expenses, domestic violence, LGBTQIA+ youth being turned away by their guardians and the list goes on.
In Colorado, more than 9,000 people are living without consistent shelter. Moreover, according to a recent study, State of Homelessness 2021 (www.bit.ly/Stateofhomelessness2021), the state has the 11th highest homelessness rate in the country.
The 2021 Homeless Point-in-Time Study indicates that three people are experiencing homelessness in Eagle County, 10 in Garfield and 60 in Pitkin. Mesa County accounted for 515 people living without housing.
The annual point-in-time study consists of statistics pulled on a single night, explained Chandler. It’s “based on the number of people that were counted as being homeless on that given night, not necessarily the number of people that cycle in and out of homelessness on an annual basis.” He acknowledged that that number is “certainly under representative,” for this reason.
“In short, I believe that homelessness is a housing problem and through supportive services and better system collaboration we can work to better connect people to housing, while we also continue to advance progress that will create more affordable housing,” concluded Chandler.