Why legal marijuana swells Denver's homeless population

One informal survey shows about 30 percent of the new homeless arrivals at a Denver shelter were drawn to the state because marijuana is now legal.

Chris Easterling was sick of relying on drug dealers in Minneapolis when he needed marijuana to help ease the pain of multiple sclerosis. They were flaky, often leaving the homeless man without the drug when he needed relief the most.

So he moved to Denver, where legal pot dispensaries are plentiful and accessible.

Easterling is among a growing number of homeless people who have recently come to Colorado seeking its legal marijuana and who now remain in the state and occupy beds in shelters, service providers say.

While no state agency records how many homeless people were drawn by legal weed, officials at homeless centers say the influx they are seeing is straining their ability to meet the needs of the increasing population.

"The older ones are coming for medical (marijuana), the younger ones are coming just because it's legal," said Brett Van Sickle, director of Denver's Salvation Army Crossroads Shelter, which has more than doubled its staff to accommodate the increase.

The shelter did an informal survey of the roughly 500 new out-of-towners who stayed there between July and September and found as many as 30 percent had relocated for pot, he said.

Shelters in some other parts of the state said they haven't noticed the problem or haven't surveyed their residents about it.

Colorado's homeless population and its marijuana dispensaries are both concentrated in Denver, which could be why shelters say they are experiencing a more noticeable rise.

Other factors could be driving the rising homeless rates. Colorado's economy is thriving, but the number of affordable homes and apartments is shrinking.

Julie Smith of Denver's Road Home, a city plan that aims to end homelessness, said the city's rising overall population could be a reason for an increase in the number of homeless people.

She said the agency has heard anecdotal reports about homeless people moving to the state for the marijuana, but officials don't have any numbers to support that assertion.

The city is eager to see the results of a study by Metropolitan State University of Denver's Criminal Justice and Criminology Department of issues related to legal marijuana, including any correlation between legal marijuana and rates of homelessness.

Assistant professor Rebecca Trammell said the researchers did interviews with shelter employees and volunteers after hearing anecdotes about the problem but have no preliminary findings.

Many of those staying in shelters come to Denver with big plans and find they can't make ends meet, said Tom Luehrs, executive director of capital city's Saint Francis Center.

The shelter has seen an increase from 730 people a day in 2013 to 780 people this year, and as many as 300 new faces a month. Not all of them are pot-smokers, Luehrs said, but many have said they were drawn to the state because of legal marijuana.

Shelters in Washington state haven't experienced a noticeable influx since that state's legal recreational sales started in July. Capt. Dana Libby, Seattle Social Services director for the Salvation Army, said the economy is largely to blame for the high rates of homelessness there.

In Colorado, some out-of-town homeless people are seeking jobs in the marijuana industry but learn only after arriving that they lack the two-year residency requirement needed to work in a dispensary. Others have felony records that make them ineligible, Van Sickle said.

Van Sickle's shelter prohibits weed and other drugs, which means those who stay there have to leave the property to smoke. Van Sickle said he has been confiscating more pot and paraphernalia, though he doesn't keep track of how much.

Arnold Kelley got lucky. The 60-year-old retired plumber, tired of risking arrest for pot-smoking, moved from Memphis, Tennessee, and got a job fixing pipes at a Denver dispensary.

The dispensary helped him get a license to use medical marijuana and paid him in pot for his work. He said pot improved his appetite and lessened his anxiety. "Once I got here, the industry was good to me," he said.

But it didn't pay the bills, and Kelley finds himself staying often at Crossroads.

The Denver area is seeing younger homeless people, too.

Urban Peak, which provides services for those ages 15 to 25, says it saw 829 people between May and July at its drop-in center, up from 328 during the same time period a year earlier.

About a third of this year's newcomers cited legal weed as a factor in moving to Colorado, said Kim Easton, the director.

Many of the older men, like Easterling, live exclusively on disability benefits and use them to buy pot, since there's nothing to stop someone from using welfare benefits to obtain cash to use at pot shops.

"I'm staying here," he said, between puffs on an electronic smoking device filled with pot oil. "This is my home."

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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