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Using Pot To Fight Homelessness

Using Pot To Fight Homelessness

By Zachary Babin - November 30, 2016

Using Pot To Fight Homelessness

Gov. John Hickenlooper wants millions in pot tax revenues to address a growing homeless population linked by mounting evidence to Big Marijuana.

The governor’s budget request coincides with a Gazette report that spotlights marijuana squatters who have converged on the Hartsel Flats area west of Colorado Springs. They live without permanent housing, running water and sanitation facilities. A notorious member of that community, before his arrest, was Planned Parenthood massacre suspect Robert Dear.

The Gazette editorial board has heard from social workers in metropolitan Denver who tell of homeless encampments burgeoning with marijuana users from other states.

As explained in this space last week, homeless populations are decreasing throughout most of the country while increasing in Colorado and other states with lenient new marijuana laws.

“Yes, there is a connection to marijuana legalization,” said Larry Yonker, president and CEO of the Springs Rescue Mission. Yonker oversaw this month’s opening of a $13.8 million, nine-acre campus to facilitate the community’s growing homeless population. Yonker asserts Pueblo County has allowed recreational marijuana retail for years, as the city’s homeless community has reached a population of about 3,000. Colorado Springs, which forbids recreational pot sales, has a general population more than four times Pueblo’s and a homeless population estimated at 1,200 — less than half Pueblo’s homeless number.

Last week we quoted Larry Smith, executive director of Catholic Charities of Denver, who called Colorado’s migration of homeless pot users “epidemic.” Smith oversees Denver’s 380-bed Samaritan House homeless facility and three other major shelters, single-family shelters and multiple food pantries and soup kitchens throughout northern Colorado.

The governor’s proposal would put $16.3 million in marijuana tax revenues, and another $2 million in general tax collections, annually toward three programs to address affordable housing and homeless issues. As explained by The Denver Post, the package includes:

— $12.3 million to build 1,200 new permanent housing units for chronically homeless individuals and 300 additional units for those with periodic homelessness in the first five years.

— $4 million to acquire or construct 354 housing units paired with behavioral health services.

— $2 million in incentives to add 250 affordable housing units for senior citizens and those facing rising prices from gentrification.

Yonker is pleased the governor has a plan, but worries traditional shelters and behavioral programs could fail to help marijuana migrants.

“They won’t come in,” Yonker said. “We haven’t been full since we opened our new shelter (Nov. 18). We can shelter 250, and the most we’ve had is 175. These people like their independence. They don’t want the imposition of rules.”

Smith, of Catholic Charities, also said he can’t get new populations of marijuana users to come in off the streets.

A drive past Denver’s two largest shelters, Samaritan House and Denver Rescue Mission, attests to the claim. People are camped out day and night near the facilities, which offer food and a variety of services.

Near Hartsel, permanent “green rush” campers overstay 6-month camping permits, overwhelming first responders and violating sanitation regulations.

“You have to have a reliable means of dealing with your waste,” said Hartsel-area rancher Preston Springer, as quoted in a news article by Gazette reporter Lance Benzel. Springer fears raw sewage odor will fill the valley.

We applaud the governor’s continued efforts to end homelessness. His budget request could help, but may fall far short of an acceptable outcome.

Legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle should make this quandary a central focus of the 2017 General Assembly. They should help the governor with mental health programs, regulations and funding adequate to address and reverse Colorado’s growing homelessness challenge.

Associated Press