Navigators help the homeless

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Navigator program brings innovation to addressing homelessness

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October 2020 - Finding solutions for those who are experiencing homelessness in Lakewood sometimes comes from making the routine feasible.

That was the case for a woman with disabilities who was eligible for a housing voucher but no birth certificate to qualify for it, and she had only two days to come up with it.

Navigating her way to a solution was daunting, given that she had no way to get to the state’s vital records office, no way to pay for the record and no mailing address to receive the birth certificate.

For Lakewood’s new homeless navigator, Princess Griffin, the solution was to take the woman to the vital records office and work with the staff there to get the woman’s birth certificate quickly. 

“We can’t wait the two weeks to send in an ID and then have the birth certificate mailed out,” Griffin said. Left without help or guidance, residents experiencing homeless can “run into a brick wall and be discouraged…How am I going to get there? How am I going to pay for it? How am I going have it mailed to me? I don’t have a proof of address.”

Because of Griffin’s work, she is now looking at apartments with the woman that the housing voucher will help pay for. It was one of Griffin’s successes as the city’s first homeless navigator, a program the city joined as part of an innovative countywide approach to addressing homelessness. Jefferson County and each municipality within the county are creating a network of local navigators starting this year. The navigators will work within their own jurisdictions while also collaborating regionally with the other city and county navigators to coordinate efforts. 

The navigators work alongside first responders and service providers to deliver immediate assistance while pursuing long-term solutions for each resident. The Jefferson County Human Services Department will also examine information gathered through the navigators’ work to identify trends to recommend changes to policies or delivery of services as well as ways to address funding longer term homelessness solutions.

Lakewood City Council approved two navigator positions in the 2020 budget, but the Colorado Health Foundation awarded Lakewood $178,632 to pay for the navigators and equipment. The city’s second navigator will start work this month.

Griffin began work just as the stay-at-home order was taking effect in March, so her work has faced even greater challenges. Those experiencing homelessness visited food pantries for help, but much of the available food had to be cooked, creating a barrier. Others no longer could find a place to shower because facilities were closed, making it even harder to be able to seek a job.

“Navigating the small things can be such a big thing,” she said.

But Griffin has made contact through visits to homeless encampments with the Police Department’s Community Action Team and through other means, and she is currently working with 48 residents experiencing homelessness. 

Navigating those residents through their challenges can be different for each person. Sometimes it’s as simple as getting someone fed regularly for two weeks so the person can stabilize physically enough to address underlying medical issues. With others, it’s working through the complex housing market to find a stable housing solution. One solution was reuniting a resident with family in another state.

The ability to address each case is what will make the navigator network effective, Griffin said. “I think it’s great because we can make a judgment as we go,” she said, allowing each solution to be different and the navigator to be creative in thinking through all the avenues.

The network is just one approach Lakewood is using to address homelessness. In August 2019, Lakewood, Arvada, Wheat Ridge, Westminster and Jefferson County coordinated the first Comprehensive Homeless Count in the county. Hundreds of volunteers, law enforcement officers and staff fanned out across the 774-square miles of the county to count those living in motels, cars and elsewhere. The data provides a better understanding of who is experiencing homelessness or who is at-risk of becoming homeless, and the information can be used to create better policies, programs and services that better address the needs in the county.

Lakewood is also a member of the Jefferson County Heading Home group, which consists of service providers, faith leaders, government organizations and residents working collaboratively to address homelessness in the county. This group helped form the Severe Weather Shelter Network, the only severe weather shelter operating for single adults in the county. Heading Home has also worked with the cities to amend each city’s building code to allow emergency shelter use within places of worship during severe weather events including snowstorms, and Lakewood City Council approved the change to the city’s building code earlier this year.

Lakewood also continues to work with community partners on broader housing solutions such as affordable housing with added services to support those with disabilities or other needs because this kind of supportive housing can decrease homelessness and reduce public spending on shelters, psychiatric centers and other facilities.  

More specific actions have been taken during the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • $120,000 of the federal relief funds available to Lakewood is providing rental and mortgage assistance, eviction prevention and utility assistance to Lakewood residents in need, and the Action Center, the nonprofit in Lakewood that provides food and other support, is serving as the agency distributing that housing assistance.
  • $100,000 of the federal relief funds available to Lakewood is providing rent and utility assistance through Metro West Housing Solutions, the housing authority that serves Lakewood.
  • $150,000 from federal relief funds available to Lakewood is helping pay for hotel rooms for individuals who are homeless with COVID-19 symptoms to quarantine and recover through a partnership with Jefferson County Human Services.

Griffin, who has a degree in criminal justice and worked for a homeless shelter for seven years before coming to work for Lakewood and continues to work at one to stay updated on what’s happening in the homeless community, wants Lakewood residents to know that tackling the problem of homelessness is doable.

“As long we can start breaking barriers, I think we will be very effective. There is not one overall solution. We are working on it case by case,” she said. She wants the community to know that the navigators “will do everything humanly possible to get them off the street into a stable situation.”

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