Denver metro

Homeless veterans' numbers may be down, but problem persists

Cities, counties, groups try to reach out to those suffering after service


An estimated 569 homeless veterans live in the Denver metro area, and Freddie Sprankel used to be one of them.

After more than three years in the U.S. Army — including an almost year-long duty tour in Iraq — Sprankel got an honorable discharge in 2012 and was in a head-on car collision that caused him spinal damage in Fort Hood, Texas. He came back to his native Colorado to be near his family for mental support, went through a divorce and ended up homeless in Denver.

A year and a half later, Sprankel was able to find housing — but for many homeless veterans, the path forward is still steep.

“I would say the trajectory is such that that population is increasing,” T.J. Westphal, a service officer for the Arapahoe County Veterans Service Office, said of homeless veterans in his county. Given “the current housing market and cost of living, we definitely talk to a lot of people who are on the cusp of becoming homeless.”

Westphal says the numbers are hard to track, but he’s noticed an uptick in the number of people in Arapahoe County who are on that edge since 2014 and 2015.

For Sprankel, 34, it took a combination of help from a nonprofit organization and a governmental body to get him back to life with housing, as is the case for many like him. But dealing with the local offices of the United States Department of Veterans Affairs — better known as the VA — wasn’t easy, even for a homeless veteran.

In limbo

Left with no separation pay when he was discharged from the Army, Sprankel, a father of five, was told the VA would take care of him. But when he started his disability paperwork in Colorado, it was a self-described “nightmare.”

Sprankel said he dealt with a slow-moving Denver VA system, and he said he had to go to great lengths to get his case on track and get the benefits he needed, a year and a half after he had come back to Colorado after his service.

In general, the VA offers avenues to permanent supportive housing, transitional housing and referrals for VA and community programs, said Michelle Lapidow, section chief for the homeless program at the VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System in Denver.

Vouchers through the Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — known as HUD-VASH — can be a road to housing, Sprankel said, but even if a veteran is approved, they still have to wait for housing to open up that accepts the vouchers.

Westphal in Arapahoe County, an Army veteran himself, said frustration with the VA is often due to misinformed expectations.

“If they feel like they’ve been burned, we help them” understand the VA’s decision, said Westphal, who previously worked for the VA. “Some vets get into the mindset of, ‘Well, I’m a vet — the VA is going to be there to help me with anything I need.’ “

Because veterans often hear misinformation about help they can get, Westphal said, it can be a wake-up call when they find out what they’re eligible for.

“I would say for my part, I wasn’t really informed at all,” Westphal said. “When I got out in 2005 ... there weren’t a lot of services for transition out of the military at that point. Over the last decade or so, we’ve really seen the VA and communities making an effort to improve that piece, but (the) military and VA have a lot of work to do (to give) good information to vets when they separate.”

Mariah Markus, 26, a former member of the Air National Guard who trained and worked at U.S. Air Force bases, also became homeless and met Sprankel through the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1 in Denver.

“There’s a lot of bureaucracy that surrounds VA claims,” said Markus, who grew up in Aurora and became homeless in July 2015 after exiting the military in 2012. “It’s a systematic problem.”

Markus wasn’t able to get disability benefits because she never served active duty.

“Some claims get approved all at once,” she said. “Some have to really put up a fight.”

Challenges and welcome news

In the metro area suburbs, the homeless veteran population is much smaller than in the city of Denver, where about 81 percent of homeless veterans in the area stayed on one night in the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative’s Point-In-Time survey. But officials are still working to provide help.

“Over the past year, Jefferson County has seen an increase in homeless veterans as they have moved from other counties into Jeffco,” said Kathryn Otten, an official with the county’s Human Services Department. Although its veterans’ service officers didn’t make contact with homeless veterans in most months of 2017, Otten said the office believes there has been an increase in need.

The City and County of Denver is the epicenter of veteran homelessness in Colorado, said Brenton Hutson, an official with Volunteers of America’s Colorado branch. Denver’s point-in-time count, 459, dwarfs that of the next-highest count in the metro area, Arapahoe County’s 44.

“Denver metro is one of the few urban centers nationally that has not seen a marked decline in homelessness amongst veterans over the past several years,” said Brenton Hutson, an official with Volunteers of America’s Colorado branch. “That tide is beginning to turn, in large part because of community efforts to stand up more effective data systems that allow providers to efficiently connect services to those in need.”

After a three-year growth streak that peaked in 2016 with 713 homeless veterans identified, the Point-In-Time report on the amount of homeless in the Denver metro area on one night, Jan. 30, showed 569 veterans counted. That number comes despite the overall homelessness and chronically homeless counts hitting six-year highs. The survey doesn’t yield an exact picture of the homeless population, but the results may signal a shift.

But veterans like Sprankel don’t always have a lot of time to wait.

A patchwork of help

“It was tough, without a doubt,” Sprankel said. “I wasn’t sleeping — I’d drive around to wherever I’d feel safe for the night, crash out for one to two hours, and then I’d be up. Paranoia kicks in, that fear mindset.”

Homeless shelters in the city of Denver can be a hostile environment, especially for combat veterans, Sprankel said.

“I just rolled with the punches, until the punches got so heavy I was ready to kill myself,” said Sprankel, who said he attempted cutting his femoral artery with a butcher knife at one point.

Other veterans got him motivated, and that, Sprankel said, saved his life. In 2013, he met a veteran from the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1 at a King Soopers, who gave him resources he needed to get back on his feet.

“They really brought me in, gave me another home when I really didn’t even have one,” said Sprankel, who sometimes asked to stay in other people’s homes. “My pride was kicking in — I didn’t want to ask for help, and that was (wrong).”

Sprankel, who receives income through the VA and said he can’t work for medical reasons — he had stomach surgery in Iraq and surgery on his spine — has had a home in Highlands Ranch since summer 2014.

Now, as a volunteerfor the VFW, he reaches out to people who might have the same prideful mentality as he once did about not accepting help.

“They gotta fill in that paperwork and (get working),” said Sprankel, who helps veterans in crisis and helps with disability claims and homelessness.

Being homeless opened Sprankel’s eyes to “what’s really going on here in Denver.”

“It’s not necessarily that people aren’t helping, but there’s only so much certain organizations can do” Sprankel said.

On the public side, every county in Colorado has an officer like Westphal in Arapahoe County. Westphal helps link veterans to services like Medicaid and food assistance as well as housing options.

“The million-dollar question is, what can cities and communities do?” Westphal said.

Local governments should work with affordable housing developers to incentivize more affordable units in their areas, he added.

“Make the decision as a community to support the construction of low-income housing,” Lapidow, of the VA, said. “It is cheaper to house individuals than to leave them on the streets, and it’s the right thing to do.”


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