Starting with Stability: How Denver Is Breaking the Homelessness-Jail Cycle
Maria moved into her new home in the Sanderson Apartments in November 2018. Through the Denver Supportive Housing Social Impact Bond, Maria has stable housing after experiencing homelessness for eight years. When she started focusing on her sobriety a year earlier, Maria reconnected with her older brother and younger sister. Her brother helped her decorate her apartment and bought Maria this lamp, which she said visitors always compliment.
Two and a half years into the social impact bond, 85 percent of the 285 participants had remained in housing without ever exiting the program.
After moving into her apartment in November 2018, Maria has focused on staying on track. She takes three buses each way to get to her job at Noodles & Company, but she’s hoping to find a new job closer to home. And as the bitter winter descended on Denver, she was happy to be able to keep her apartment warm. “Living in the cold on the outside, I never wanted to fall asleep because I was afraid I would never wake up,” she said. “So now I sit here in the warmth, and I’m so grateful.”
Maria wants other people in a similar situation to know “there is hope and there is light at the end of the tunnel.” And for people who can’t imagine what it’s like to experience homelessness, she asks for just one thing: compassion. “It’s hard. Sometimes we get people that look at us like we’re nothing. But we’re something.”
Maria was one of 975 people experiencing chronic homelessness in Denver in 2018. The city faces a growing population and ballooning housing prices, and this housing crisis can in turn lead to other problems. People experiencing chronic homelessness often cycle in and out of jail, detox centers, and emergency care, which can negatively affect them and inflate city budgets that fund public services.
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and his administration knew they had to stem the growth in chronic homelessness and break this homelessness-jail cycle. But nationwide funding shortfalls for housing programs meant Denver had to be prudent with its spending to make sure it was paying for a program that worked. So Denver took a less common approach and entered its first SIB. The SIB uses the pay for success funding model, in which investors commit to paying for improved social outcomes that save the city money. Only about 25 such projects have been implemented in the US.
Launched in 2016, the Denver Supportive Housing SIB aims to support residents struggling with homelessness, substance use, and mental health problems by increasing the number of people getting and staying housed and reducing the number of days they spend in jail. The permanent supportive housing model combines a permanent housing subsidy with wraparound services, such as mental health counseling, to help people improve their stability. In Denver, MHCD and the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless (CCH) were selected to offer these services as part of the SIB.
The program requires payments to investors only if the SIB meets its goals. Denver hopes to save money by shifting away from the common approach of applying short-term band-aid fixes to social problems, instead pursuing a new model of implementing a long-term, evidence-based program that emphasizes outcomes.
“I love when I presented it to mayors … to see their eyes light up like, ‘Why in the world didn't we think about that?’ Because every one of us across the country are dealing with similar issues.”
“The program is different from most government programs for two main reasons: Private investors are taking on the risk, so if the program fails, the government isn’t paying. And the government is really paying for success as defined by outcomes, not process,” said Mary Cunningham, vice president for metropolitan housing and communities policy at the Urban Institute.
The Urban Institute is studying how the program is being implemented and evaluating the SIB’s progress to determine investor payments and to better understand the effectiveness of supportive housing programs. When the five-year project ends in 2021, the Denver SIB will be one of the largest, most robust evaluations of such programs in the country.
So far, the results are positive. As of July 2018, two and a half years into the SIB, 85 percent of the SIB’s 285 participants had remained in housing without ever exiting the program. During their first year in housing, 44 percent of participants did not return to jail. Though many people in the program still went to jail, the share is lower than what the literature says is typical for this population.
Eight private investors loaned Denver’s supportive housing program $8.6 million up front, which has largely paid for the services component of the SIB. They’ve received a total of $1,025,968 from the city based on the program’s outcomes so far.
When the project ends in 2021, the Denver SIB will be one of the largest, most robust evaluations of supportive housing programs in the country
As well as addressing Denver’s challenge of high rates of chronic homelessness, the SIB offers an example of how initiatives like pay for success (those that focus on outcomes, evidence, and cross-sector collaboration) can help cities solve some of their most complex problems.
Hancock is optimistic about this model’s ability to address similar problems in other places. “It was phenomenal that possibly using this tool in a way we've not seen before could create a model, but also be very effective in addressing the chronically homeless challenge,” he said. “I love when I presented it to mayors … to see their eyes light up like, ‘Why in the world didn't we think about that?’ Because every one of us across the country are dealing with similar issues.”
Malcolm experienced debilitating hip pain while living on the streets of Denver. After moving into the Sanderson Apartments in September 2017, he arranged a hip replacement surgery, finished his recovery, and found a job as a janitor. Malcolm likes to cook, and this toaster oven was one of the first things he bought for his new apartment.
People experiencing homelessness tend to live in certain pockets of Denver’s downtown, including this section of Champa Street. This is also an area where people experiencing homelessness frequently encounter police.
Source: Adapted from Mary K. Cunningham, Ruth Gourevitch, Mike Pergamit, Sarah Gillespie, Devlin Hanson, Tracey O’Brien, Christine Velez, Daniel Brisson, Gary Sanford, and Abby Magnus, From Homeless to Housed: Interim Lessons from the Denver Supportive Hosing Social Impact Bond Initiative (Washington, DC: Urban Institute, 2018).
Katie Bonamasso, the senior project manager at the Corporation for Supportive Housing who works on behalf of the project intermediary, said the SIB acted as a large-scale proof of concept for what evidence shows is a successful approach to ending chronic homelessness. “There’s 30 years of evidence behind this intervention.” she said. “Supportive housing changes lives.”
Managing so many stakeholders was challenging for the SIB in the program’s early days because each team member came to the table with a different background and expertise in this type of work. But the common goals among all the stakeholders drove them to seek solutions that would benefit the entire project. Regular phone calls with all SIB stakeholders allowed them to collectively find solutions to challenges. “Having that collaborative structure allowed everyone to come to the table and say, ‘How can we fix this?’” Jaeckel said.
Justin Milner, director of the Urban Institute’s Pay for Success Initiative, added, “One of the most compelling aspects of pay for success is that it acts as a forcing mechanism to bring different groups together and focus on a single set of services and outcomes to improve people’s lives.”
After finishing the complex process of setting up the project model, the SIB was faced with new challenges as it turned to its main goal: helping people get housed.
Robert experienced homelessness for nearly 30 years before moving into the Renaissance Downtown Lofts in early 2018. Since joining the social impact bond, Robert has found a new sense of security and has been able to better manage his mental health challenges. Robert bought this Mr. Right pillow to remind himself that he can overcome his past struggles and take on each day with confidence.
Lisa Bryant, a clinical case manager with Mental Health Center of Denver, knocks on the apartment door of a program participant who uses his social impact bond housing voucher to live in a private apartment complex. She checks in with her clients regularly to discuss their treatment plans and ask if they need help with anything.
The 101-unit Renaissance Downtown Lofts, operated by Colorado Coalition for the Homeless (CCH), opened in May 2018. All the social impact bond housing units adopt a Housing First philosophy, meaning no requirements are placed on people moving in (such as maintaining sobriety or seeking substance use treatment). Before residents moved in, CCH hosted pizza parties and outings for the residents to let them meet their neighbors. CCH continues to provide residents with opportunities to engage in community-oriented activities.
The 60-unit Sanderson Apartments, operated by Mental Health Center of Denver, opened in south Denver in August 2017. Sanderson was built with trauma-informed design to support safe, secure environments. The hallways are wider than normal and shaped so that residents have a clear view down the length of the hall. Stairways are brightly lit. Each floor is painted a different color to help residents know they are in the right location. And almost 50 percent of the building is engagement space that includes community rooms, comfortable furniture, lounging spaces, and a library.
Kelly Eisentraut, resident services coordinator for the Renaissance Downtown Lofts, meets with the president of the resident council. Colorado Coalition for the Homeless created the resident council to give residents a stronger voice in their living situation. At this meeting, Kelly and the resident discussed when maintenance staff would clean air filters and carpets in the apartments.
Another common challenge for new residents is the guilt they feel that they were selected for this housing program while their friends are still experiencing homelessness. Many residents also knew each other when they lived on the streets, and they sometimes bring conflicts that started there into the building. Eisentraut implemented a “good neighbor” program to incentivize positive relationships, and the building has a resident council that residents can use to voice their concerns and seek solutions.
Now that the SIB units are mostly full, service providers are focusing on strengthening relationships between case managers and residents and on helping the residents maintain their stability, according to Takisha Keesee, program manager of MHCD’s SIB team.
“A lot of the changes are small successes: The ability to connect with their family, the ability to finally have a space where you can keep your work boots so now you can go to work,” she said. “My focus is really keeping them engaged in services, and making that of quality. I think that's very important, because even after SIB, if they stay at Sanderson or if they don't, I really want this to have made an impact and impression on them.”
John had only a backpack, sleeping bag, and pillow when he moved into the Renaissance Downtown Lofts in July 2018. Now his apartment is fully furnished and he’s found a new community among his neighbors. John, who grew up in the Denver suburbs before experiencing homelessness for years, loves living in downtown Denver and walking along the 16th Street Mall. He keeps a calendar hung up in the middle of his living room to remember important days, like friends’ birthdays, doctor appointments, and when rent is due.