No state is immune to the problem of homelessness, but Colorado's problem is unique.
One special feature? The homeless population is skyrocketing.
According to federal statistics, Colorado's homeless population increased by 6 percent in 2016 alone, an aggressive rate that rivals the fastest in the country. And now, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reports that Colorado's homeless exceeds over 10,000, far above the state's supply of 7,000 beds meant to house and care for them. This problem has lead to large homeless encampments near shelters, (especially in downtown Denver) that law enforcement and neighborhood watch types have been pretty enthusiastic about breaking up. Truthfully, people haven't been kind to the homeless living there — The Downtown Denver Partnership even hired a private security firm to combat panhandling, and police have assigned more officers to the area to try to control their growth.
The situation is arguably even worse in Boulder, where vagrants can be criminally charged for sleeping outdoors (as if they have anywhere else to sleep). In fact, Boulder, despite its reputation as a ground zero for intelligent, educated people, has taken more legal action against this marginalized population than in any other city in the state.
… Now seems like a good time to mention that this is all largely due to weed … but, hold please — we'll get to that later.
Right now, let's talk solutions. Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper has one. A surprisingly good one at that … and we don't mean "good" just in the sense that it's a smart plan, but "good" in that it's one of the increasingly uncommon instances a government makes an empathetic, helpful legislative move towards a population in need.
Hickenlooper has proposed that the state withdraw $12.3 million from Colorado's overflowing recreational weed tax cauldron and use it to build housing units for both chronic and episodic homelessness. On top of that, he's proposed another $6 million for low-income housing and those with behavioral needs. Part of that would also be directed towards job training, addiction counseling and services for the mentally ill and law enforcement.
Not too shabby. That's over $18 million dollars of serious cash money for making marginalized people's lives a little better, and for such a good cause — these are the kinds of housing, training and treatment programs that have been proven to get people off the streets and into safe, stable environments. Shouldn't be a problem, considering Colorado raked in over $134 million in the first nine months of 2016.
So, what's to Hickenlooper from enacting his benevolent plan?
Not much, mercifully. This could easily be a very real thing, very soon.
Colorado voters have yet to object to the way the state taxes legal weed, and the kind of revision needed to reroute tax funds from where they're going now to the homeless population wouldn't be terribly difficult. The only requirement Coloradans agreed on in terms of taxation on legal pot was that $40 million in annual tax revenue go to schools, but after that, the extra weeed money can go wherever it's needed.
The irony here — of course — is that Colorado's legal pot is the very reason so many people are homeless right now. Not because of its qualities as a substance — pot usually doesn't put people on the street like alcohol, opioids or more addictive drugs — but in part because of its effect on the local economy.
Thanks in large part to the booming marijuana industry, Colorado has become a costly place to live — in cities like Boulder, Colorado Springs and Denver, most residents are paying over half their income on rent and many wouldn't even dream of being able to afford a down payment on a house. Add to that skyrocketing utilities and cost-of-living prices around these parts, and it's not hard to see how housing and wages that were once within the grasp of low-income populations have begun to slip out of their hands. Things are simply pricier here now. It's not as easy as it used to be for people to put food on the table and a roof over their heads.
The relationship between Colorado's homeless and marijuana has other origins, too. At at least in Denver, reports of homeless people traveling from other parts of the country to treat their illnesses with legal Colorado weed aren't uncommon. As the Denver Post reports, a good portion of them flock here to smoke legally, but, they also come to work. Anticipating a surge in pot farming and the weed industry, many people with agricultural backgrounds, retail skills or other consumer-based careers have landed in Denver, only to find the market saturated and the cost of living astronomical. Veterans are especially susceptible to this problem — Denver has the highest population of homeless vets in the nation, many of whom blame the legal weed industry's highly competitive job market. Sometimes, they might have criminal records, which automatically disqualifies them from getting a job in the highly regulated business and further complicates their ability to get by in such an expensive place.
Even if they do find a job in the industry, or at all, they still might not be able to earn enough to stay afloat .— a 2015 report from the The Self-Sufficiency Standard for Colorado found that the state's minimum wage of $8.23 was nowhere near enough to support a person's basic needs in most of the state's cities. At least in Boulder, a minimum wage of at least $13 would be needed for a person to live reasonably.
As a consequence of Colorado's unaffordable housing and job unavailability, many of these homeless are showing up in high numbers at shelters and other facilities, overtaxing a system that's already under the gun to provide more help than it has resources to.
“Of the new kids we’re seeing, the majority are saying they’re here because of the weed. They’re traveling through. It is very unfortunate,” Kendall Rames, deputy director of Urban Peak, a nonprofit that provides food, shelter and other services to young people in Denver and Colorado Springs, told the Denver Post.
In fact, an informal survey performed by the Salvation Army suggested that at least 25 percent of the increase in Colorado's homeless population was due to weed.
It's hardly the only thing that's creating Colorado's homelessness epidemic, but … yeah. It's got something to do with it.
That's why Hickenlooper's angel-plan makes sense. Colorado's homeless could use some pay-back funds from the very thing that likely got them there in the first place. And we have to commend him for trying to push it through — he's been trying, and largely failing to curb the states homeless problem since he first took office as mayor over decade ago. If he's able to harness the power of weed to help people that need it the most, we daresay he'll have succeeded, something that's hard to do with a problem like homelessness where there's never one easy answer and conflicting factors like mental health, new job markets and changes to the local economy threaten to foil plans of do-gooding.
All that remains to be done now is for the state legislature to approve the rerouting of tax revenue towards the homeless population during their next session, which could happen as early as January 11. No doubt, there will be some opposition as lawmakers try to divert the tax funds to the issue of their choice, but right now, we have yet to find any outspoken critics of Hickenlooper's plan.
If they stay in the woodwork, Colorado's homelessness problem might not be so singularly distressing … we'll finally be just like all the other states: kinda sorta getting by! Ah, to blend in …