—Editor’s note: In an ongoing investigation into the area’s homeless situation, a variety of issues have presented themselves that need further exploration in order to fully under- stand the problem. Through a series of articles, Correspondent Ruth Stodghill will identify and explain many of the items that come to bear on this dilemma that faces the community.

The ongoing issue of homelessness in Trinidad is having an economic impact on the community in many ways -  such as the burden placed on local medical facilities which provide emergent and inpatient care for those who are experiencing homelessness. Another institution that is impacted through the ongoing struggle with homelessness in the area is the criminal justice system.

Homelessness is a risk factor for incarceration - and vice versa. A study conducted by the National Symposium on Homelessness Research found that “Homeless individuals are disproportionately more involved in the criminal justice system as both victims and alleged perpetrators. Housing is a burden for individuals, families, and communities, as well as an economic burden on the criminal justice system.”

According to the recently published Burnes Center on Poverty and Homelessness (Denver University) survey’s final report on homelessness in Trinidad, “Criminal justice involvement – particularly jail - for individuals experiencing homelessness often occurs during their episode of homelessness and is typically found to be misdemeanor (i.e., trespassing, public intoxication, camping ban, etc.).”

Of the 63 individuals who responded to the Burnes Center survey of those experiencing homelessness in Trinidad, the majority indicated they’ve been involved in the criminal justice system. 77.8 percent reported having been in jail previously, while 20.6 percent reported having served time in prison. 17.7 percent reported they are currently on probation, and 3.2 percent reported they are currently on parole.

According to the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, three sub-populations of individuals experiencing homelessness are at particularly high risk of of incarceration: youth, military veterans, and those with diagnoses of mental health disorders.

The connection between mental health issues and incarceration among those experiencing homelessness is a particularly close one, as demonstrated in studies conducted at the national, state, and local levels. For example, in June of 2018, the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice released “A Study of Homelessness in Seven Colorado Jails,” which surveyed homeless and non-homeless inmates in Arapahoe, Denver, El Paso, Larimer, Mesa, and Pueblo counties.

The data generated by the survey illustrates the link between mental health and homelessness, with almost two-thirds of homeless inmates reporting a mental illness, compared to 46 percent of their non-homeless counterparts.

The Burnes Center survey final results show a similar link between mental health issues and involvement with the criminal justice system among those experiencing homelessness in Trinidad. “When analyzing the individuals who reported having ever been in jail, we cross analyzed their responses against those of the individuals who reported having received treatment for mental health issues, either currently in the past. Of the 48 individuals who reported having been in jail before, 27 (56.3 percent) reported also having received treatment for mental health in their lifetime.”

This link is further strengthened due to those who attempt to medicate mental health issues through drugs and alcohol, often leading to problems with addiction that can lead to run-ins with local law enforcement.

According to Andrew Romanoff, president and CEO of the nonprofit Mental Health Colorado, “People with mental illness are liable to stumble onto a dangerous, well-traveled path: from job loss, to homelessness, to addiction; then committing a crime to support a drug habit, and finally incarceration.”

In 2012, the average cost to house an inmate for one year in Colorado was $30,374, as reported by the National Institute for Corrections. Thus, by perpetuating the broken system of incarcerating the homeless, communities like Trinidad are paying a hefty price.

And the economic costs continue when those experiencing homelessness are released from jails and prisons. The National Health Care for the Homeless states: “While the criminal justice system provides a steady source of health care during incarceration, continuity of care is disrupted upon release, particularly for those returning to unstable housing situations. Sudden discontinuation of medications and services, paired with lack of access to services, puts previously incarcerated individuals at risk to cycle among the streets, shelters, emergency rooms, and criminal justice system. In addition to health challenges upon release, previous incarceration can even increase the risk of adult physical and sexual victimization among women.”

Given the link between homeless and incarceration, and the high cost of incarceration, we are left to ask - how much would our community benefit if we had a plan in place to alleviate homelessness in Trinidad, if by doing so we reduced the economic burden being placed on our emergency medical departments, hospitals, and local law enforcement?

We will explore one such plan in the next article in this series.

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