Nearly $500 Million Spent on Homelessness in Denver

Collective amount spent on homeless crisis is enough to afford an apartment for each homeless person || Illustration by: April Kinney

Controversial report brings national attention to city’s homeless crisis

Earlier this month the Common Sense Institute (CSI)—a Colorado based, non-partisan economic think tank—in collaboration with CU Denver Inworks, released a study estimating that between various municipal and non-municipal/charitable organizations, “at least $481.2 million,” is spent annually on people experiencing homelessness in the Metro Denver area. CSI counted 6,104 individuals experiencing homelessness in the region as of Jan. 27, 2020 but predicts that that number has gone up since the pandemic related economic crisis.  

Based on these estimates, CSI puts the per capita spending on unhoused individuals at between $41,679 and $104,201 per person—at least double the per capita spending on k-12 students in Denver Public Schools according to the same report.  

The report received national and international attention, with news publications such as the British based Daily Mail using this comparison as a hook for their articles on the subject. Conservative publications such as Fox News and The Daily Caller (the right-wing news website founded by Tucker Carlson) also emphasized this statistic in their articles, prompting negativity toward homeless people from their audience. “How much meth, cell phone service, food, clothing and other services do you get for $104,000 a year as a homeless person?” one comment on the Fox News article read. 

Cathy Alderman, of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless (CCH), criticized the report. “I think the report is trying to imply that we’re spending too much money,” Alderman said in a Westword article. She called the study’s conclusions “wildly off base,” telling The Sentry that the methodologies used by CSI artificially inflated the results. For example, Alderman took issue with CSI counting the money CCH spent on housing for people who, because CCH housed them, are not homeless. 

Dan Griner, of CU Denver Inworks, pointed out that a significant portion of the $481 million total can be attributed to homeless individuals utilizing emergency medical services that accrue a higher cost than other more preventative care options which they do not have access to.  

Kristin Strohm, the president and CEO of CSI, stressed the study’s non-partisanship. “We are a non-advocacy organization, I want to make that very clear,” she told the Sentry. The budget comparisons between homeless spending and other spending areas—such as education and public safety budgets or the cost of rent in the city—were necessary, Strohm explained, in order to provide a framework for understanding the significance of the data in relation to the economic ecosystem as a whole. “Ultimately, our goal is to educate Coloradans,” Strohm said. 

 “are we really seeing the value of the approach?” 

Griner said that the Inworks team certainly takes an evidence based, objective approach to their research; however, he did not express such a hardline dedication to non-partisanship. “I think it’s unfortunate how little we spend on education,” he said, acknowledging the cause for controversy. Griner does not think spending on homelessness is too high, necessarily, but he thinks the money could be used more effectively. When it comes to the current strategy for addressing the issue, he asks, “are we really seeing the value of the approach?” 

The report was the result of the first phase of a three-phase analysis. CSI took the lead during phase one. CU Denver Inworks verified their findings and will be taking the lead on phases two and three, where they will conduct a qualitative analysis of the system to identify areas of positive impact and opportunity areas for further engagement. 

The city of Denver is currently taking comments on a five-year plan to address homelessness. Griner says their complete analysis will be put out before City Council votes on the finalized plan in November.

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