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Tackling Grand Challenges: Advancing a Community Solution for Homelessness during COVID-19

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By: Zach Marshall, Avery Becklenberg, Emma Parker, Andres Pulido, Grace Marchand, and Maddie Vickers, University of Denver Undergraduate Students

Article  •
ACE Grant  •

With a peak of 95% of the U.S. population staying at home during the COVID-19 pandemic and states, including Colorado, promoting safer-at-home policies and gradually reopening, it’s especially important now to consider the public health implications of COVID-19 on those without homes.  In fact, a University of Pennsylvania, University of California Los Angeles, and Boston University report finds increased risks among the homeless population and a need of 400,000 additional emergency accommodations. The report estimates that in the U.S. more than 21,000 people experiencing homelessness will be hospitalized and 3,400 will be killed from COVID-19. Those are human beings — families, children, and veterans — just like you and I, and we knew rapid action had to be taken. 

When the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic in March 2020 and its prevalence continued to increase at an alarming rate, our group mobilized to address the evolving needs of our community partners, including the City of Englewood and Change the Trend (CTT), a network of 30+ organizations addressing homelessness in the Metro Denver region. After consulting with those partners, our group identified a great need for information on how other nonprofits, cities, counties, and states have responded to the challenges of people experiencing homelessness during this unprecedented time. By conducting a literature review across all 50 states and synthesizing the content of 100+ articles, the team launched a report on Emergency Housing, City and County Government Policy, State Government Policy, Nongovernmental Outreach, and Emergency Assistance Funding and Resources. Since April 24, 2020 — the report’s launch date — the group has already heard that the report informed the efforts of the Cities of Englewood, Sheridan, and Littleton’s Tri-Cities Policy Task Force, Change the Trend, Denver area city managers, and police departments. Perhaps among the most illuminating findings include the temporary innovative housing structures created nationally such as in recreation and convention centers, the establishment of hygiene stations, and the CDC’s recommendation not to clear encampments unless individual housing units are available for relocated individuals. 

The six of us came together when we all realized that homelessness was a wicked problem that we all were passionate about doing something about. With the support of Dr. Linda Olson, in the Pioneer Leadership Program, we created a project that has spanned 18 months and secured two ACE grant’s from CCESL to help service providers serve more people and increase community awareness. Some of the ways we have done so as a group are by conducting a community attitude survey, volunteering, developing the Change the Trend website and a section on the City of Englewood website specific to homelessness initiatives, and presenting to various nonprofits, government officials, and Englewood High School’s Capstone Class. Now, we are also collecting stories of people experiencing housing challenges during this time, as we know that stories connect us all and remind us what it means to be human. 

Through unprecedented circumstances, our team has realized the importance of adaptability and recognized that we can spread compassion and support the efforts of organizations even remotely. In striving to create sustainable, impactful change, we have learned a great deal about doing community engaged work not just for, but also with and alongside our partners, and we will continue to look for opportunities to lift communities in the future, no matter the circumstance. 

*Authors’ Note:  

For additional information about the project, please email and check out the groups’ May 20th, 2020 Keynote Presentation at the University of Denver Research and Scholarship Showcase.  

All authors contributed equally and are grateful for the support of their faculty mentor, Dr. Linda Olson in the Pioneer Leadership Program, Mike Sandgren the Network Leader of Change the Trend, the DU Grand Challenges program through CCESL and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation, and countless others, who have supported, inspired, and helped them help others along the way.