When Edward Madewell’s mother asked him to come home after five years of homelessness and drift, he bought a Greyhound bus ticket and headed for Missouri.
Halfway there, his mother told him he would have to give up the marijuana he uses to control seizures and switch to prescribed medicine. Madewell changed his plans and headed for Colorado, where recreational weed has been sold legally since Jan. 1. “I’m not going to stop using something organic,” he said. “I don’t like the pills.”
Madewell is among the homeless lured to Colorado by legal marijuana who are showing up at shelters and other facilities, stressing a system that has seen an unusually high number of people needing help this summer.Of the new kids we’re seeing, the majority are saying they’re here because of the weed. They’re traveling through. It is very unfortunate,” said Kendall Rames, deputy director of Urban Peak, a nonprofit that provides food, shelter and other services to young people in Denver and Colorado Springs.
Younger visitors to Father Woody’s Haven of Hope, which serves people age 18 and older, typically are more demanding and difficult than their elders, director Melinda Paterson said. “Typically, they have an attitude. But we are really strict here. We treat you with respect, … and if they are not respectful, we ask them to leave,” she said.
Combined with an increase in those who arrive penniless and seeking jobs in the state’s strengthening employment market, the homeless influx is straining a service network already under stress, said Murray Flagg, divisional social services secretary for the Salvation Army’s Intermountain Division. Not everyone who works with the homeless singles out marijuana as a contributing factor to their arrival here. “We have had an influx, and the majority of them have been from out of town. I have no idea if the marijuana law has had an impact,” Paterson said.
But homeless advocates agree that numbers have swollen, sometimes dramatically, over the past year.
The number of those who go to Father Woody’s normally rises by about 50 people per month during the summer, Paterson said. This year, she said, “we have gotten 923 new homeless over the last three months,” more than 300 a month.
About two months ago, she added, the shelter began bringing those who eat breakfast and lunch there to the table in shifts to accommodate the increase. “It is worrisome in the sense that how are we going to clothe and feed and find shelter for them?” she said.
Between May 1 and July 15, Urban Peak’s drop-in center, where homeless people 15 through 24 can get a meal, do laundry, shower or take GED and other classes, saw the number of new visitors jump by 5 percent over the same period last year, Rames said. Last summer, the Salvation Army’s single men’s Crossroads Shelter in Denver housed an average of 225 men each night.
This summer’s average is about 300 per night, and when other shelters are full, the organization provides a bed for as many as 350, Flagg said. In the past, the shelter’s residents averaged between 35 and 60 years old. “Now we are seeing a much larger number of 18- to 25-year- olds.”
An informal survey performed at the shelter suggested that about 25 percent of the increase in population was related to marijuana, Flagg said.
While many come to smoke without worrying about the law, others “are folks looking to work in the industry, a lot of them have an agricultural background,” or other experience they expect will be in demand, he said. They may also have a felony on their record that automatically disqualifies them from getting a job in the highly regulated business.
Those who do find jobs in pot shops and grow houses often don’t earn enough to pay rent or buy a home in Denver’s expensive housing market, Flagg said. They, too, can end up homeless. The shelters don’t require anyone to explain why they came to Colorado, but some do volunteer their reasons. On the list of reasons given at St. Francis Center, a daytime shelter, marijuana trails only looking for work, said Tom Leuhrs, the executive director.
While marijuana use contributes to the number of homeless, the growth in their numbers indicates that people are having difficulty moving into the workforce from high school and college, Leuhrs said. “The economy is not supporting them. There are not enough jobs,” Leuhrs said. He sees an almost even split between those, like Madewell, who say they use pot for medical reasons, and others who crave easy access to a legal high.
Dusty Taylor, 20, who was standing in line for breakfast at Urban Peak this week, said he came back to Colorado, where he grew up and had been homeless in the past, after hearing weed had been legalized. “I said, I should go back. It was, like, I don’t want to catch a felony for smoking.”