The number of people visiting Sim Cingoranelli’s food bank in Centennial continues to climb year after year — from fewer than a hundred families a week four years ago when he first opened to more than 500 families a week now.
Some clients don’t mince words about how critical the food from his pantry, Hope’s Provision, is in their lives.
“If we weren’t getting free food, we’d have to move,” Cingoranelli said, echoing the message he’s heard from folks loading up with produce, meat and canned goods from his pantry on East Costilla Avenue. “There’s a lot of people in need right here.”
That need, especially as it intersects with people’s ability to find and keep a shelter, is what this affluent suburb southeast of Denver wants to address. Centennial City Council approved a resolution to team up with Arapahoe County to create and fund its first homeless outreach liaison, starting in January.
“This person would have the ability to approach a person and really ask them about their situation and ask them if they would like assistance,” said Centennial Mayor Stephanie Piko. “It takes more than one contact with a person for them to say they know you — they trust you.”
The city’s new homeless coordinator, who hasn’t been hired yet, will earn $110,000 a year and be provided with a city-owned vehicle. The position is funded until the end of 2025.
The new liaison is charged with finding and identifying unsheltered individuals and families in the city and connecting them with services so they can obtain stable housing. The person will also address concerns from businesses and residents about any encampments that pop up and will act as a go-between with police as they enforce Centennial’s 3-year-old urban camping ban.
“We really see this as an opportunity to pilot a position where we can do direct outreach,” said Kathy Smith, community resources director for Arapahoe County. “We continue to see a steady stream of households that are in need of rental assistance.”
The launch of Centennial’s homeless outreach coordinator position comes on the heels of the creation of a similar role in three other Arapahoe County cities — Sheridan, Englewood and Littleton — this past summer. The three suburbs are part of the Tri-Cities Homelessness initiative. Smith said the focus on homelessness is part of the county’s “regional approach” to what has become a growing problem as home prices have escalated at a historic pace in metro Denver over the last decade.
According to Metro Denver Homeless Initiative data and the organization’s point-in-time surveys of those living without a home, Arapahoe County’s homeless population increased from 198 in 2018 to 245 in 2020. Then it leapfrogged to 514 in January of this year, likely the result of economic pressures wrought by the coronavirus pandemic.
“We know the pandemic had a disproportionate impact on our lower-income population,” Smith said.
Homelessness takes a different form in the suburbs compared to the tent encampments that have sprung up in Denver and Aurora and have resulted in controversial cleanup operations as trash builds and neighbors complain. Reece Bowling, pastor at Encounter Church in Centennial, said he sees it in more subtle ways in Centennial.
“It is typical we see one to three people walk past our church every day pushing a shopping cart with all their belongings,” he said. “It’s a growing problem.”
People are also living month-to-month in motels clustered around the interchange of Interstate 25 and East Arapahoe Road, Bowling said, or in their cars. One of the responsibilities of the new Centennial homeless outreach liaison is to not only make contact with those living without shelter now but to make inroads with those “at imminent risk of homelessness,” according to a recent city council memo explaining the initiative.
That’s a challenge made more acute by the resumption of evictions following a pandemic-fueled suspension. Arapahoe County’s eviction tally is hovering at an average of 277 a month in 2022, through September, after having fallen to an average of 162 a month last year and 156 a month in 2020.
There were an average of 318 evictions a month in the county in 2019, right before the pandemic struck.
Mounting evictions prompted Arapahoe County in May to launch an Eviction Clinic Pilot Program, through which tenants facing the imminent loss of their home can consult with attorneys to see what options exist to keep a roof over their heads.
The county is paying for the three-year program with $1.5 million from American Rescue Act funding. Lawyers with Colorado Legal Services are available three mornings a week at the Arapahoe County Community Services building in Littleton to help struggling tenants.
Bowling, the preacher at Encounter Church, said he holds out hope that Centennial’s move to hire a homeless coordinator will actually be an effective way of targeting available money to the people who need it.
And with three years to test it out, the city should know if it’s on the right track.
“The challenge is how do you connect the people to the resources?” he said. “How do we reach the people who are good candidates for secure housing? Nobody knows if this position will accomplish what it needs to but you have to give it time.”
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