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Metro Denver and its suburbs are arguing over the growing unhoused population

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The number of unhoused people living in America's suburbs has grown by more than 20% since 2016, according to federal estimates. In the case of Denver's suburbs, that is causing conflicts with the city. Colorado Public Radio's Andrew Kenney reports.

ANDREW KENNEY, BYLINE: I'm standing beneath Sixth Avenue in Denver, where the highway crosses over the railyards and into downtown. In the shadow of the overpass, there's a camp - a tent, pallets, tarps and bike trailers. It's the kind of makeshift shelter that people without homes have set up across the city, from industrial areas like this to the sidewalks of upscale urban neighborhoods. A recent survey found more than 1,300 people living on the streets of Denver, a 30% increase from before the pandemic, in addition to thousands more living in shelters. But this isn't just a city issue. Not far from the camp, a light rail train is pulling in.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN CLANGING)

KENNEY: In the last few years, more people in need have ridden this train to look for a better life in Denver's suburbs.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN CLICKING)

KENNEY: At the end of the line is Douglas County, some 30 miles south, where the median household income is 1 1/2 times higher than in Denver, one of the highest in the country.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: This is the E line to RidgeGate Parkway. Stand...

KENNEY: Among those who have made the trip are Konrad Jackson and his wife, Sabrina Morgan. They're both 38 years old. They're resting with their dogs and their bike trailer along a rushing four-lane road, having arrived just a couple of days earlier. They say in Douglas County, there's...

KONRAD JACKSON: Just less bullcrap. I mean, there's less drugs. There's less - there's a lot less bad everything.

KENNEY: The county estimates there are about 160 people experiencing homelessness in the area, a tiny fraction of the number in Denver but a sharp increase from the past. Sheriff Tony Spurlock.

TONY SPURLOCK: I think we really started to see the visible homelessness in the last three years.

KENNEY: Some officials blame the light rail line, which was finished in 2019, but housing advocates say people are becoming homeless in the suburbs, too, as housing prices skyrocket. Douglas County is trying and struggling to respond.

TAMMY BOZARTH: I started this role approximately four weeks ago.

KENNEY: Tammy Bozarth, the very first sheriff's deputy focused on homelessness, is talking to Jackson and Morgan on the side of that four-lane road.

BOZARTH: So where do you guys live? I mean, are you, like, living in Lone Tree? Or are you - do you have an encampment somewhere else? Or do you...

JACKSON: Kind of bounce around.

SABRINA MORGAN: Yeah.

BOZARTH: Kind of bounce around. So do you guys need resources, or...

KENNEY: She asks if they need help but says Douglas County can't offer much.

BOZARTH: Unfortunately, we don't have any homeless camps here in Douglas County. Otherwise, I would gladly take you there.

KENNEY: In June, officials discussed opening a legal homeless camp here but quickly canceled the idea after backlash from residents at a town hall meeting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: We didn't allow vagrancy 40 years ago, and we shouldn't allow it now.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: And I live in Douglas County for a reason, and I don't want that crap here. Send it back to Denver, where it belongs. Thank you.

KENNEY: So for now, Douglas County sheriff's deputies sometimes give people rides to other cities like Denver and Aurora, where there are shelters and services. Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman says that's just Douglas County unloading unwanted people.

MIKE COFFMAN: I think this is dumping. I think this is dumping, pure and simple.

KENNEY: Cathy Alderman with Colorado Coalition for the Homeless says this kind of squabbling is typical as suburban areas try to adjust to a new reality.

CATHY ALDERMAN: Their first reaction is, how do we get rid of homelessness? And often, cities will implement camping bans. And they will do things like, how can we bus people experiencing homelessness out of our area? And that's just not solutions-driven.

KENNEY: Douglas County leaders say they're talking to voters about why they have to expand services and asking churches to provide shelter instead. For NPR News, I'm Andrew Kenney in Denver. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrew Kenney