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Rashida Asante-Eccleston

Communication Associate, National Council for Behavioral Health

Using Trauma-Informed Care to Address Homelessness

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Denver is experiencing a crisis of homelessness. The homeless population in Colorado spiked 8 percent since 2013 and is estimated to be more than 3,300 people in Denver. As others debate the causes, the Mental Health Center of Denver is responding with a solution – a promising new approach – an apartment complex that integrates trauma-informed care principles into housing.

We know that homelessness may be caused or exacerbated by chronic mental or physical illness. The Mental Health Center of Denver, a member of the National Council for Mental Wellbeing, already recognizes the effects of trauma and integrates trauma-informed care into its services. After participating in a National Council Trauma-Informed Care Learning Community, the organization created a workgroup to apply more of the principles throughout all of its services. From this, integrating these principles into the center’s housing and residential services emerged.

The Mental Health Center of Denver saw a growing need for affordable housing and developed  Sanderson Apartments, an apartment complex that would take a trauma-informed approach to address homelessness. To create a trauma-informed space, the project used a Housing First model to connect individuals with permanent supportive housing that is based on previous research indicating this type of housing worked best for people experiencing chronic homelessness. In addition to truly listening to the voices of those who have experienced trauma, the Mental Health Center of Denver incorporated many of the concepts highlighted in the National Council’s Seven Domains of Trauma-Informed Care throughout the planning and building process to create safe and secure environments. Denver’s Social Impact Bond program and low-income housing tax credits from the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority help support the program and fully realize the practices and principles of trauma-informed care.

“The idea of this space is to create an environment that’s open and comforting in such a way that it doesn’t re-traumatize people” Carl Clark, M.D., president and CEO of the Mental Health Center of Denver, said on a Denver local news program.

These fully-furnished apartments are the first in the U.S. to use “trauma-informed design,” incorporating open spaces and hallways, plenty of natural light, warm colors and few walls to prevent residents from experiencing feelings of confinement that can trigger past trauma. To accommodate concerns that residents may have about letting others into their space, durable furniture and fixtures were used to reduce the need for maintenance staff to enter their apartments to fix items in the future. In addition to providing tenants with stable housing, the building has on-site staff and each resident is assigned a case manager to help with access to physical and behavioral health care as well as assistance accessing additional services, such as Social Security or job hunting.

The ultimate goal of these apartments is to enable its 60 residents to receive needed care and become self-sustaining. As part of the social impact bond, residents’ progress will be compared to a control group of homeless individuals in Denver to analyze the impact of supportive housing on homelessness.

The apartment complex opened with a ribbon-cutting celebration that featured Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock. Beyond encouraging stability for its residents, the Mental Health Center of Denver hopes to use this facility as a model to create another apartment complex to reunite families affected by homelessness.

At the grand opening, Mayor Hancock remarked: “We know that when people are in their own homes, feel safe and are provided access to the support they need, they’re able to work toward overall well-being and a life they’ve always dreamed of having.”

Thank you to JoAnn Toney and Karen Prestia from the Mental Health Center of Denver for their help with this story.

Learn more about trauma-informed care.