NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Since Colorado legalized weed for recreational purposes last January, the state has seen its homeless population spike.
From April through August, Urban Peak, a non-profit organization that provides services for homeless youths in Denver and Colorado Springs, has seen a 153% increase in the number of people older than 21 that it serves at its drop-in center. Urban Peak serves youths ages 15 to 25, but the legal age to purchase weed is 21.
Urban Peak Executive Director Kim Easton is reluctant to blame the surge on the legalization of marijuana.
“Marijuana is a symptom of being homeless,” Easton said. “It doesn’t cause homelessness.”
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Still, she says, when Urban Peak staffers ask why the kids have relocated to Colorado, at least one out of ever three say it’s because weed is legal. So legal pot isn’t making people homeless, but it is drawing people who may already have been homeless to Colorado.
“They were at risk of becoming homeless or were homeless somewhere else,” Easton said. “They would have been smoking marijuana before they came here. They may come here so they are not arrested for possession. It’s just one less thing they have to worry about.”
The influx of people is putting stress on service providers that already are dealing with more people than they can handle, and Easton says it’s critical that the state ensure funds are available to handle the increased demand for services.
“The voters of Colorado passed this, and now we just have to do the best we can in implementing the regulations,” she said. “It’s an unintended consequence you could have never predicted.”
It’s not just kids flocking to the state because of the legalization of weed. Older homeless people passing through Denver’s shelters say the number 1 reason they’re moving to Colorado is the state’s booming economy and abundance of jobs, but the legalization of marijuana is a close second, according to area shelters and service provider.
Colorado’s unemployment rate dropped to 4.7% in September, with the state adding 14,600 nonfarm payroll jobs between August and September, according to a recent report by the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. The last time the state’s unemployment rate was that low was in June 2008.
“A number of people are coming because they think they can get jobs in the marijuana industry because there’s a lot of work there,” said Tom Luehrs, executive director of St. Francis Center, a shelter in downtown Denver that has seen an increase of about 50 people a day since the first of the year. “But they have to be Colorado residents for a year before they can work in the industry.”
In addition to relocating to Colorado for jobs, many have indicated that they’re moving because they have a painful disability that is alleviated by the use of cannabis.
“The disability is often what creates homelessness, but marijuana does ease the pain and make them feel that they might be able to get back into the workforce,” Luehrs said.
Legal weed and the booming economy are also the main reason clients of the Denver Rescue Mission say they are moving to Colorado, said Brad Meuli, the organization’s president and CEO. But it’s the high cost of housing that’s causing them to be homeless.
The agency is opening another emergency shelter to serve the increasing number of homeless men in Denver, many of whom are looking for jobs in the marijuana industry. There are three marijuana grow operations next to the Mission’s warehouse.
“We’re seeing a lot more young people than we have before,” Meuli said. “It’s interesting that you’d come to live at a shelter and work at one of these places. It’s like prohibition has ended and now we have this billion dollar industry.”
Though the evidence is mainly anecdotal now, agencies that track the homeless population expect the numbers of homeless people drawn to Colorado by legal weed will only rise.
“Unfortunately, there are several factors that lead us to believe that the number of youth experiencing homelessness will only increase in our community,” according to a report by the Metropolitan Denver Homeless Initiative. “The legalization of marijuana is already drawing more people to the State who lack necessary living supports.”
--Written by Margret Jackson for MainStreet