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How the cannabis economy is changing Colorado

Compassion | Marijuana might not cause homelessness, but it doesn’t help, either
by Rob Holmes
Posted 3/21/18, 03:32 pm

Legalized recreational cannabis is not driving homelessness in Pueblo, Colo., a study released last week found, but the new “Green Rush” economy has spiked rents across the state and caused an influx of marijuana migrants.

The 200-page study analyzed data on poverty and changes in the numbers of homeless people among other “social impact” indicators for Pueblo County. Though opponents of recreational marijuana use have linked exploding rates of homelessness to the drug, the study’s authors said there is “no evidence to support that argument.”

But they admitted there might be an indirect link as people stream to Colorado for the drug.

“Differences in the legal status of cannabis from one state to the next have given rise to an entirely new form of homelessness,” wrote Colorado State University–Pueblo sociology professor Tim McGettigan, one of a cohort of nearly 40 authors from the university’s Institute of Cannabis Research. More than a million dollars from state and local marijuana taxes funded the research institute, according to The Pueblo Chieftain.

Researchers reasoned that since pot is legal throughout the state and homelessness has decreased in some counties, “other factors must be considered,” namely the state’s economic boom and resulting higher rents. One issue unique to Pueblo was a spike in utility disconnections. The local power company cut utilities to more than 7,000 Pueblo homes in 2016, affecting 20 percent of households.

“Black Hills [Energy] devastated our community with high charges and requiring draconian deposits, meaning people can’t even afford to get into subsidized housing,” said Anne Stattelman, director of Posada, an emergency shelter and service provider for homeless people. “It’s a big reason families are becoming homeless here.”

Posada served at least 2,700 chronically homeless people last year, and 800 of those Stattelman interviewed were “cannabis refugees”—recent arrivals from other states, often veterans wanting to self-treat their PTSD with pot. Legalized marijuana or its industries drew them to Colorado. But cannabis-seekers might not be homeless when they arrive, she told me: “They travel, maybe on a disability check, to Pueblo, thinking it’s affordable. And soon they become homeless because they don’t have jobs and have no place to live.”

Posada noted a sharp increase in cannabis-seekers from other states starting in January 2014, when retail marijuana became legal. The illegal trade has bourgeoned, too.

A 2017 point-in-time count found Pueblo County had more homeless people per capita than larger metropolitan areas like Denver and Colorado Springs.

Though the study’s authors pointed to lack of affordable housing and utility disconnections as the most logical factors for Pueblo’s crisis, average rent in February for a one-bedroom apartment in Pueblo cost $587—less than half the national average of $1,255 but 12 percent higher than the previous year. Calculating cost-of-living factors such as housing, food, gas, utilities, and transportation, this year Pueblo ranked the third cheapest place to live in the state.

And Stattelman said that’s why pot users come to light up in Pueblo. She counted nearly 3,000 more “unduplicated” homeless people in 2016 than the previous year. With housing problems, cartel activity, and the unintended consequences of legal marijuana—like cultivators depending on Medicaid—she warned, “We’re a cautionary tale from the battlefront of this crisis.”

Getty Images/Photo by Jewel Samad/AFP Getty Images/Photo by Jewel Samad/AFP A homeless man in Las Vegas

Las Vegas’ one-stop campus for the homeless

Moving away from a focus on housing as the magic wand for curing homelessness, Las Vegas inaugurated a “homeless campus.” Corridor of Hope is the city’s long-range solution to a pressing problem in Clark County, with the eighth largest homeless population in the country.

The initial phase of the 4.5-acre one-stop shop, which opened about a year ago, allows nonprofit organizations to cluster job, mental health, and addiction services, and, like a day shelter, it provides toilets, showers, and a place to leave belongings.

Officials intend to add legal open-air sleeping facilities in May and gradually improve the temporary “courtyard” into a permanent $15 million facility over the next two years.

“This is really a triage center for homeless individuals who won’t or can’t go into traditional shelters,” Kathi Thomas-Gibson, Las Vegas community resources manager, told Governing. The campus is a “resource center” where people can connect to services, unlike a tent city or encampment where people flow in and out, disconnected from the larger society around them.

The substance-addicted and mentally ill among the homeless have greater needs than a lease, Thomas-Gibson said. Even a good supply of affordable housing does not treat the root causes of their homelessness. The model for the Las Vegas campus, Haven of Hope in San Antonio, features dorms—but only for those who are sober and residents of the county.

The Las Vegas Sun reported that the typical homeless person in the city is a white, middle-aged, childless male with at least one “disabling condition” who recently lost his job and is homeless for the first time.

Las Vegas residents hope the campus does not become the equivalent of a homeless jamboree, attracting people from beyond the area. And detractors point out that the campus model just maintains people’s homelessness.

But the model could benefit people in an extreme climate like Las Vegas if it keeps them secure, off the streets, out of the prison system—at a savings to taxpayers—and more connected to service providers.

Despite a limited track record so far, Community Services director Steve Harsin told the Las Vegas Review-Journal the triage of homeless people coming to the campus will be “intense,” keeping them from having a mindset of “I can hang out in the courtyard for the next three years.” —R.H.

Associated Press/Photo by Paul Sancya Associated Press/Photo by Paul Sancya A prisoner resource office in Detroit, Mich.

Recidivism drops through reentry programs

Data from the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision shows 42 percent of those released from state prison return within three years, and 73 percent of those return within 18 months of regaining their freedom. Nationally, two-thirds of the more than 650,000 offenders released each year get rearrested within three years, according to the Justice Department.

Considering New York prisons released about 22,000 inmates in 2016, this is a huge revolving door.

States whose recidivism rates have dropped have reentry programs in place for helping ex-inmates find and keep a job, locate housing, and get mentoring. Nationally, a third of prison admissions are due to noncriminal parole violations, so mentoring programs may be even more important for parolees.

Michigan began a reentry initiative in 2005 that focuses on a “transition accountability plan” for each ex-prisoner. Between 2006 and 2015 it saw a 43 percent decline in people returning to prison from parole. Director of Corrections Heidi Washington said the results stem from an “offender success” focus linked to job training and education options for people while in prison.

Several Southern and Southwestern states have seen decreased recidivism through mandatory accountability and addiction treatment programs.

In an article last week in the New York Daily News, George McDonald, founder of The Doe Fund, a nonprofit anti-poverty group, suggested New York should develop an official department of reentry for helping those going back into society. But religious groups, rather than government action, are key for curbing recidivism, wrote Timothy Head and Craig DeRoche of Prison Fellowship: “The long-term, intensive, faith-based program holistically addresses the roots of criminal behavior.” —R.H.

States have barely touched opioid money

Funding that Congress allocated to the states to combat the nationwide opioid crisis largely has gone unspent. About $1 billion, to be distributed over two years through the 21st Century Cures Act, sat mostly untouched this year due to difficulty in creating short-term programs that correspond with the life of the funding. Wary of the small funding window, healthcare providers scrambled to develop programs and hire people to provide services without a long-term commitment from the government. Congress might act to extend the funding since some projects are only beginning to appear.

“This [epidemic] isn’t going to go away in a couple years,” said Robin Parsons of the Fairbanks Alcohol and Drug Addiction Treatment Center in Indianapolis.

Slow-moving bureaucracy is a big part of the problem.

“It has been a challenge with that many contracts and using a state procurement process and partnering with community agencies,” Allen Brenzel, clinical director for the Kentucky Department for Behavioral Health, Developmental, and Intellectual Disabilities, told Politico. —R.H.

Rob Holmes

Rob is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute’s mid-career course. Follow Rob on Twitter @SouthernFlyer.

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  • RC
    Posted: Wed, 03/21/2018 03:54 pm

    “The illegal trade has bourgeoned, too.”  I guess they were lying when the promoters of pot said legalizing would eliminate or reduce the illegal trade. I am confident they were lying about everything else they promised.  In a few years, I bet the majority of Coloradans will rue the day they legalized Pot.  The Pot explosion is creating a human disaster the tax proceeds will never come close to covering.      

  • Narissara
    Posted: Tue, 03/27/2018 09:45 am

    Colorado is also having to deal with increased traffic fatalities because of pot, which they said wouldn’t be an issue either.  They just announced plans to begin  studies to figure out why users don’t take the warnings about driving under its influence seriously.