As communities across Colorado grapple with how to best serve people experiencing homelessness, the City of Centennial has a new resource — a homeless outreach liaison.
Vanessa Gates was hired to the brand new position, which falls under Arapahoe County’s direction.
Gates, who started working in the role on March 13, introduced herself to the Centennial City Council on May 16, sharing updates on what she has worked on so far and the vision for her role.
“Our target population are going to be individuals and families who are experiencing homelessness and at-risk of becoming (homeless),” Gates said.
According to the presentation, Gates will collaborate with individuals and/or families facing homelessness and refer them to the appropriate resources or programs.
She will also provide navigation assistance to reduce barriers affecting the individual or families’ access to resources.
“I’ll conduct field outreach in areas with higher concentrations of calls regarding people experiencing homelessness. It’ll be from (the) Arapahoe County Sheriff’s department, local businesses and the city itself,” Gates said.
So far, Gates said she has visited three encampments in the city. One was at the Dry Creek RTD station across from the Jones District, another was at Cottonwood Creek, and the third at deKoevend Park, she said.
“To date, we have discovered some hot spots. So, one being I-25 and Dry Creek, High Line Canal, and Goodson Rec Center (and) the deKoevend Park area,” Gates said.
District 1 Councilmember Candace Moon said, “I’m very happy that you’re on board. We’ve needed this homeless coordinator position for a long time. The areas you mentioned, two of them are in District 1. And we do see a lot of displaced people.”
The value of collaborating with other cities, including Englewood, Littleton and Sheridan, that are also working to lessen the impact of homelessness was highlighted during the meeting.
“This is a community problem. It’s not just the City of Centennial,” Gates said. “We really have to come together and work at this.”
The Metro Denver Homeless Initiative’s 2022-2023 State of Homelessness report said the Homeless Management Information System showed 27,860 people accessed services related to homelessness between July 1, 2021, and June 30, 2022.
According to the report, the top causes of people experiencing homelessness are related to economic barriers, evictions, or familial challenges such as relationship issues.
Arapahoe County Commissioner Jessica Campbell-Swanson said during a May 17 town hall that in December 2022, Arapahoe County was No. 1 in evictions in the state.
“That is not an award you want to win,” Campbell-Swanson said. “The number of our unhoused neighbors has doubled in the last two years.”
According to the agreement between Centennial and Arapahoe County, in 2022, the city expressed an interest in collaborating on the new homeless outreach position to provide assistance to unhoused people in Centennial and in areas of the county adjacent to the city.
The agreement explains Centennial agreed to provide annual funding for the position through 2025. The city will pay roughly $100,000 to the county per year.
Centennial also agreed to provide one-time funding of up to $40,000 for the purchase of a vehicle for Gates to use.
“We’re so thrilled to have this position filled and for the work that you’ll be doing,” said Councilmember Christine Sweetland.
Gates’ current projects include developing collateral and community contacts, conducting field outreach and completing training.
She said she is working with Arapahoe County on creating a guide for her outreach, as well as working with law enforcement and community organizations that provide outreach to people experiencing homelessness.
“I’ve been collaborating with the city and, of course, our Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office to help resolve any complaints that they have received,” Gates said. “I will continue and have been doing outreach to local businesses, nonprofits, community partners and our encampments.”
Sweetland said she’s heard people say that some people experiencing homelessness are resistant to accepting help.
“But I would assume that it’s a relationship building, because I don’t think I would take help from somebody that just came and gave me a pamphlet,” Sweetland said. “Can you kind of talk about, like, how many touches … outreach that you’ll have to do before you think that maybe help will be accepted and received?”
“That is so true. And these folks also have been promised, time and time again, that ‘I’m here. I’m your case manager. I’m here to help,’ and it’s just a let down,” Gates responded. “So I’m another person coming to them, saying, ‘I have a pamphlet, and I’m here to help.’ So really listening to the person and creating that space that they feel comfortable with me. And that might not happen, but I don’t give up very easily.”
Gates added that she would come back around and check in with the person, as well as make notes about their interests to help build a relationship.
“We’re people, and we’re mucky and messy,” she said. “So, it’s just gonna depend.”
Mayor Pro Tem Richard Holt asked if Gates has been introduced to the sheriff’s office co-responder program, to which she said she has.
“We’re still trying to figure out what communication looks like and when it’s appropriate,” she said.
Moon said she would appreciate updates from Gates on her progress, including information about what Gates may need.
“I’m happy you’re here, but I have real concerns about making sure that you have everything you need to do this job, because it’s huge,” she said.
Prior to starting this new role, Gates said she previously worked for the City of Lone Tree as its teen court coordinator.
She also worked for the Volunteers of America in a few different capacities, including as a case manager for adults experiencing chronic homelessness, as a service coordinator for affordable housing and as a volunteer coordinator, she said.
“Another lifetime ago, I was an EMT (emergency medical technician) for 17 years,” she said. “I love people. I love talking to people and getting to know them. And this is a population that is really near and dear to my heart.”