More young homeless in Denver, drawn by legal marijuana

At homeless shelters in Denver, officials say the rise in young men living on the streets is due to legalized marijuana.

AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, File
A worker cultivates a special strain of medical marijuana known as Charlotte's Web inside a greenhouse, in a remote spot west of Colorado Springs, Colo. The availability of marijuana for recreational use has also pushed up homeless rates.

Officials at some Denver homeless shelters say the legalization of marijuana has contributed to an increase in the number of younger people living on the city's streets.

One organization dealing with the increase is Urban Peak, which provides food, shelter and other services to homeless people aged 15 to 24 in Denver and Colorado Springs.

"Of the new kids we're seeing, the majority are saying they're here because of the weed," deputy director Kendall Rames told The Denver Post. "They're traveling through. It is very unfortunate."

The Salvation Army's single men's shelter in Denver has been serving more homeless this summer, and officials have noted an increase in the number of 18- to 25-year-olds there.

The shelter housed an average of 225 each night last summer, but this summer it's averaging 300 people per night. No breakdown was available by age, but an informal survey found that about a quarter of the increase was related to marijuana, including people who moved hoping to find work in the marijuana industry, said Murray Flagg, divisional social services secretary for the Salvation Army's Intermountain Division.

Some of the homeless have felony backgrounds that prevent them from working in pot shops and grow houses, which are regulated by the state, Flagg said. He also thinks others may find work but don't earn enough to pay rent in Denver's expensive housing market.

At the St. Francis Center, a daytime homeless shelter, pot is the second most frequently volunteered reason for being in Colorado, after looking for work.

St. Francis executive director Tom Leuhrs also sees an economic reason for the increase of the number of homeless young people. They're having difficulty moving from high school and college to the workforce, Leuhrs said.

"The economy is not supporting them. There are not enough jobs," he said.

Edward Madewell said he was on his way back home to Missouri when he decided to head to Colorado so he could keep smoking the marijuana he uses to control seizures. "I'm not going to stop using something organic. I don't like the pills," he said.

Dusty Taylor, 20, said he moved back to Colorado, where he grew up, to avoid legal problems. "I don't want to catch a felony for smoking," he said.

The Christian Science Monitor reported earlier this year that Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper warned that when states promote something that is not good for people, they need to be prepared for “unintended consequences.”

Governor Hickenlooper is certainly getting ready for what surveys indicate will be the most serious consequence: Higher marijuana use by youth. In a message to state lawmakers, he wrote that Colorado’s top priority should now be to prevent the negative impacts of legalization on children.

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