A COLORADO COMMUNITY MEDIA SPECIAL REPORT

'We used to never have anything like this': In Douglas County, signs of homelessness are on the rise

This is in a county with the highest median household income in metro Denver and the lowest percentage of people in poverty. It's also a county where housing costs are rising sharply.

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Often, Dan Makelky, the human resources director for Douglas County, looks out his office window in Castle Rock and sees someone get released from the nearby county jail and wander down the road with nowhere to go. 

Central Castle Rock is outside the Regional Transportation District. Without public transportation connecting the town to other areas, some newly-released people can't afford a taxi and don't have anyone to call for a ride.

“I wonder where they go, honestly, that's the first thing,” Makelky said. “Or where they're heading to.”

Makelky and others, like county Sheriff Tony Spurlock, say this is just one of many factors that may contribute to what appears to be a growing number of people experiencing homelessness in the county.

“What happens is, they have no place to go, so they just try to find a place to stay,” Spurlock told Colorado Community Media.

Multiple law enforcement agencies, nonprofits and local governments across the county say they are seeing a surge in the number of unhoused people in the area. Reports from these agencies include new urban encampments, higher demands for services and — though it doesn't always indicate homelessness — more panhandling.

Castle Rock and Lone Tree are two of the main areas seeing these increases, local leaders say. But the reports have spanned the entire county, Makelky said.

This year, the county formed a Homeless Initiative to research how many unhoused people are here and how they came to be in their situation -- and to formulate a plan to address it.

Some in the county say the time is coming for additional local services to help people find shelter or food. Others say that will only invite more transient populations. Still others are considering sweeping camping bans and other regulations for these groups.

In work sessions in October and December, Douglas County's elected commissioners directed staff to begin considerations for a countywide camping-permit requirement and have said they're not interested in creating homeless shelters for the community.

Camping bans already exist in Parker and Lone Tree and at least one councilmember in Castle Pines — Roger Hudson — has said he wants to see one implemented there. Castle Rock's town council also voted Nov. 16 to begin discussions on addressing local homelessness. 

Homelessness rising

So far, much of the evidence around the growing number of unhoused peoplein Douglas County is anecdotal. Data from the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative shows a mostly small, steady count of these populationsin the county from their local "point in time" survey. But that doesn't align with what county entities watching homelessness are seeing.

That's why one of the first things the county's new Homeless Initiative wants to do is improve the way they count the community. The initiative also wants to better define local homelessness and understand if it's mostly people couch surfing, camping, sleeping in cars or something else.

Many of the anecdotal reports of increased homelessness have come from law enforcement, including the Douglas County Sheriff's Office and the Lone Tree police. 

“I've been here 40 years, and we used to never have anything like this, and now we have it and it's progressively getting more and more,” Spurlock said. 

This is in a county with the highest median household income in metro Denver -- $119,730 -- and the lowest percentage of people in poverty -- 2.7% -- according to U.S. Census Bureau data for 2019.

The county, like most of metro Denver, has also seen sharp increases in housing costs in recent years. Median home sales values jumped 25% over the year ending in October, according to real-estate tracking company Zillow. And average rents in the county were up 5.2% in the first three months of this year from late 2020, the largest quarterly rise since early 2019, according to county data.

Local officials say they are still working to understand the causes of any rise in homelessness in the county but have not yet pointed to high housing costs as a factor.

Kirk Wilson, Lone Tree's chief of police, said his office is definitely seeing more calls related to people experiencing homelessness lately.

County Commissioner Abe Laydon, who helps lead the county homeless initiative, first noticed the increase when he saw multiple “really significant encampments” in Lone Tree in 2020, he said. 

“It seemed like the more I shared this with other people in Highlands Ranch and Parker, they had similar stories of more and more folks and people experiencing homelessness and panhandling,” he said.

The Douglas County School District's total numbers of students experiencing homelessness has remained mostly steady and in some categories decreased. But the district has seen a continuous increase over the past decade in students in shelters, transitional housing or awaiting foster care, according to data from the Colorado Department of Education.

In the 2010 to 2011 school year, there were 37 DCSD students in this category. The school year that began in 2019 had 240. 

It's not just Douglas County, though. the region as a whole is seeing “more people experiencing homelessness than ever before,” said Cathy Alderman, chief communications and public policy officer for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.

A myriad of theories

Representatives from multiple county entities, including the county government and law enforcement agencies, have said they believe the people experiencing homelessness in the community have traveled from both Denver and Colorado Springs. None so far has said they've seen people who once had a home in the county but recently became unhoused, but all possible reasons are still being researched.

If so, why are more unhoused people migrating to Douglas County? Is it because, as some have suggested, they're being pushed out of Denver and other areas by camping bans? Is it because of transportation challenges stemming from the jail and RTD?

Among Douglas County's leaders, there are a myriad of theories floating around as to why this increase is happening but not yet any agreed-upon or verified explanations.

In Lone Tree, law enforcement officials say they began to notice the uptick once several RTD light rail stations opened in 2019.

“Especially in the last two years there's been a very big uptick in transients,” said Officer Ricky Stegmaier with the Lone Tree police. “We ask how they got here and a majority of the time it's light rail.” 

Stegamier said his office uses the term “transient” to include more people than just those experiencing explicit homelessness. 

Wilson, the Lone Tree police chief, also said he thinks the increase in the north Douglas County city is due to people riding the train down from Denver.

At the end of all light rail lines, including the Ridgegate station in Lone Tree, riders are required to exit the train while it's turned around. RTD does allow folks who accidentally went too far on the line to get back on and ride to their intended exit, said Steve Martingano, deputy chief of the agency's transit police.

“Ridgegate has nothing there and I think that's a little bit of the issue I think that we find,” Martingano said. “There's nothing at that end of the line.”

Martingano said that RTD doesn't have a specific policy related to homelessness because as long as the person pays their fare, they are simply considered a customer. The agency is in the process of hiring a homeless outreach coordinator in an effort to address the growing issue, he said. 

Another theory for why people without a steady home may travel to Douglas County is that it may represent a safer environment than densely populated areas like Denver, said both Makelky and Stegmaier.

County Commissioner George Teal suggested in one meeting on the topic that people who “choose to be homeless” come to Douglas County because the terrain and vegetation make it a “good place to hide.”

Laydon, another commissioner, said he believes it's because those panhandling are more successful in the county. “People in Douglas County are generous and kind and I think there's an awareness of that," he said.

Makelky said sorting through all these ideas is an important part of what the new homeless initiative is hoping to do. 

“Everything right now is theory and anecdotes,” he said. “And that's what we're trying to get past.”

What's being done

While county agencies may not agree on why the increase is happening, they do seem to agree on one thing: Douglas County does not have many resources available to help people in this situation.

Some law enforcement agencies — such as Lone Tree — hand out pamphlets with lists of services to those experiencing homelessness, but virtually all the resources included are in Denver or other areas.

Stegmaier said that's because Douglas County doesn't have a consistently open homeless shelter and has limited options for food banks. While there is a shelter network of churches, it only operates in the winter and only allows women and children. He's started to wonder if more services should be added, he said.

“What's the community going to look like if that's here? And I can see why we'd be hesitant on that, but do we need that? And I'm starting to think we do,” he said. 

The county's human resources department and other local nonprofits such as the Help and Hope Center, the Parker Task Force and SECOR Cares (SECOR stands for Southeast Community Outreach), also provide some services to vulnerable members of the community.

In an Oct. 5 work session, the county commissioners directed staff to begin looking into a camping permit system in the county, which would require anyone seeking to sleep outdoors to first obtain a permit.

Teal and Laydon both indicated they would be interested in such a measure, but the third commissioner, Lora Thomas, said she was opposed.

“I would like to address homelessness as a choice in terms of our enforcement,” Teal said. 

Teal also said he's interested in a resolution that would provide assistance “for those experiencing homelessness by happenstance and it's temporary.”

In the same meeting, Kelley Dunnaway, a deputy county attorney, said some in the community don't want to see a local homeless shelter because it could invite more people in that situation to come to the county.

Laydon also said in an interview that he doesn't want to “make the problem worse” by providing what he called "an endless well of support." Instead, he said, the county should help individuals become self-sufficient.

“We want to be compassionate but we don't want to be victims of our own compassion where we're allowing communities and businesses to suffer or go out of business or struggle and property values go down because of people experiencing homelessness,” he said.

'A vagabond lifestyle'

In a Dec. 6 county commissioners work session, Terence Quinn, the director of community development for the county, asked the commissioners if they would consider pursuing new facilities and shelters for the homeless in addition to their other approaches.

“I would suggest we make the pie a little bit bigger and start talking about other avenues,” he said. “There may need to be some bigger discussions or bigger solutions down the road and potentially we can take a leadership role in that.”

The commissioners responded that they were not interested in that type of response, with Teal stating he would like to see faith-based rescue missions helping instead.

"I probably need to work on my compassion level," Teal said, adding: "I have no interest in doing anything with county services that assists with a vagabond lifestyle, which I believe there is a prevalence of evidence that that’s what we’re seeing, it’s a vagabond lifestyle and I don't think we should have any business facilitating that," he said.

He added that he would like to help those who are "willing to work their way back" or are just traveling through the county to get to their destination.

“I'm hesitant to set up the refugee camps here in Douglas County under the idea that we can pay for it with our tax dollars,” Teal said. “I don't have enough compassion in my model to see that as a viable use of public resources.”

The county will also likely soon amend their ordinance banning panhandling because similar laws have not held up to constitutional scrutiny, said county attorney Lance Ingalls. The county currently is not enforcing that oridinance, he said. Some courts across the country have found that outright bans on panhandling violate First Amendment rights to free speech.

Spurlock said he doesn't view homelessness as a “law enforcement issue” and that he hopes the county will address it in a way that doesn't involve passing more laws and ordinances to outlaw the behavior.

“We can't just lock homeless people up in the jail. It's not against the law to be homeless,” he said. “It's not a good idea to use that as your remedy because that's costly in the long term.”

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