Zoe Schacht/Colorado Newsline

In June, Gov. Jared Polis hired Andrew Phelps as his special advisor on homelessness and housing. A job like it has not existed since John Hickenlooper was governor several years ago. And, with little knowledge of Phelps’ previous work, some homelessness and housing advocates worry about what he will do.

Phelps worked for Colorado Springs as the city’s homelessness and prevention response coordinator before filling the new position in the governor’s office. Colorado Springs doesn’t have a good record of handling homelessness, according to Benjamin Dunning, an organizer for Denver Homeless Out Loud.

“They focus on law enforcement. They focus on sweeps. They focus on shelters,” Dunning said. “I don’t see anything where they talk about how many people that they’ve actually housed.”

Dunning said these types of policies frequently drive unhoused people out of where they live. Though Colorado Springs has reported decreased homelessness numbers, they could reflect “cruel” policies, he said. Places like Denver typically have more homelessness services and allow for unhoused people to hide — a key component in staying safe when unhoused, according to Dunning.

Newsline contacted multiple Colorado homelessness and housing experts to speak about Phelps’ new role, but many declined to comment or were unaware of his position. Newsline also contacted the governor’s office multiple times before it declined to comment or allow an interview with Phelps.

Phelps started the new position in June, making between $80,000 and $90,000 annually. In his role, Phelps will create recommendations, provide legislative analysis and policy, focus on investments of federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act and other general advising tasks.

Homeless subpopulations increase

Like Dunning, Kathleen Van Voorhis, CEO of Community Investment Alliance — a nonprofit that works to develop stable housing, behavioral health services and food services — said Colorado Springs has “interesting policies and tactics” when it comes to homelessness. But, Van Voorhis thinks Phelps’ geographic history will aid in creating better homelessness policies for the state.

Currently, the state estimates 9,000 people are experiencing homelessness. In the metro Denver area, 6,888 people were reported homeless in January, with the number of unsheltered people having grown by 33% between 2020 and 2022, reported Axios. In rural areas of Colorado, services and resources are limited. In some cases, this drives unhoused people to Denver but also leaves many vulnerable.

“I think the hope is that as Mr. Phelps takes this position, that he’s able to really take a holistic view in understanding homelessness in Colorado. So, really being able to dive deep outside of metro Denver and understand, and help do the research into rural homelessness, because it’s so different than urban,” Van Voorhis said.

A man gathers his belongings early in the morning on Nov. 30, 2020, as city officials begin to clear a large homeless encampment in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)
A man gathers his belongings early in the morning on Nov. 30, 2020, as city officials begin to clear a large homeless encampment in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

Van Voorhis hopes that Phelps plans to address homeless subpopulations that she said are becoming more common statewide. Subpopulations such as victims of domestic violence seeking services have increased since the start of the pandemic. But, aiding their needs is not an easy fix and will take a trauma-informed approach, Van Voorhis said.

“The more we can stabilize our unhoused across the state, the long-term stabilization will actually end up ending homelessness as well as fiscally saving our state funds,” she said.

Phelps’ position has the potential to move the state away from managing homelessness to stopping it, according to Van Voorhis. She said agencies are being stretched thin without a dedicated funding line for permanent supportive housing. But, with the creation of Phelps’ position, funding for services might be on the horizon.

During the state’s most recent legislative session, $200 million in federal relief money was dedicated to funding recovery care and addiction treatment, and will give tax credits to service providers. However, the funding is not permanent and will eventually run out.

Phelps should learn from those with lived experiences being unhoused and service providers, Van Voorhis said, but she doesn’t want him starting from scratch. Recognizing where the state has failed at handling the homelessness crisis is the first step in moving past it and addressing where policy and higher-ups have gone wrong.

“The way we have addressed housing and homelessness has failed. And the status quo has failed, or we wouldn’t be where we are,” Van Voorhis said. “The biggest concern is always: Is the individual being appointed, no matter who they are, going to be able to go in and openly say that and openly say we have failed? We need to look at this differently, and we need to start addressing it head on.”