Cannabis and Homelessness

By: Donald Burnes PhD[1], from Burnes, D. “Cannabis and Homelessness,” in McGettigan, T., ed. The Politics of Marijuana: A New Paradigm. Peter Lang, New York, NY, 2019

With the advent of legalized recreational marijuana in 2014, there has been a growing debate about whether marijuana has created an increase in homelessness, both locally here in the Denver metropolitan area and across the state. Described slightly differently, is there a relationship between legalized recreational cannabis and homelessness? Various individuals and organizations have weighed in on this issue from a wide variety of perspectives, and there are stories and claims on both sides of the argument. Unfortunately, there are few data on the topic, and the data that are available are incomplete. However, we do know something about this relationship, and this chapter will lay out what is known.

Background on Homelessness

Let’s start by defining homelessness. What does it mean to be homeless? Several individuals who have experienced homelessness have indicated that they don’t like the word homeless; it’s “too impersonal, too abstract.” Their suggested language is “persons without homes of their own.” Others have suggested that one of the important goals of people without homes is the development of a sense of community, people to care about, people one can turn to in times of remarkable success or trouble. We all need networks of caring friends, even those without homes, a community of love, if you will. So, let’s take a closer look at homelessness. In many ways, homelessness is one of this country’s most intractable social issues. The number of people experiencing homelessness has not measurably decreased in the last 35 years. Despite billions of dollars and countless staff and volunteer hours spent in the attempt to address this issue here in the US, we continue to make little headway in solving this persistent problem.

Certainly, the word “homeless” often promotes a certain image in most minds. It is probably an image of someone holding a sign at an intersection or a person lying on the sidewalk, or in a doorway or at a campsite. These images represent our stereotypes of the persons we associate with homelessness and these images certainly represent the most visible people experiencing homelessness. But the fact is, 80−85% of those experiencing homelessness are not those persons rather, they are mothers with children, youth who have been exiled by their parents, men and women working in jobs whose pay is insufficient to be able to afford even modest rent, veterans struggling with PTSD, or individuals with mental illness who are afraid of being seen, among others. They represent the invisible persons without homes of their own. To say that we are all a paycheck away from homelessness is a bit of hyperbole, but, for many, there is a real element of truth to this statement. The 2008 banking crisis and the resulting recession left many individuals and families unable to pay mortgages, leaving them with very tenuous housing situations. For others, an unexpected medical bill or car repair bill forces unbearable choices between paying necessary bills and putting food on the table. A recent study indicated that almost half of the respondents for a national poll would have to borrow money to pay for an unexpected bill of only $400.[2] Just think about the ability of an individual without a home of his/her own to borrow money for anything.
One of the subpopulations we don’t often consider is the children who are experiencing homelessness. In 2017, the US Department of Education estimated that there were roughly 1.3 million school-aged children who were without homes,[3] most of whom were either living with Mom doubled up with family or friends or living with Mom and siblings in a car. The Colorado Dept. of Education, for example, indicates about 22,000 school-aged children experiencing homelessness in Colorado for the same year.[4] Since every family experiencing homelessness with a school-age child has a below school-age child and at least one parent[5] some families without a home have more than one school child. I estimate that one should multiply the number of school-aged children without a home by 2.5. That means that, depending on the definition of homelessness that one uses, there could be as many as 55–60,000 people in families with schoolchildren without homes in Colorado. If one adds all the single adults, both men and women, and the youth aged 18 to 24 to the number, it is safe to say that we had in 2016 around 75,000 individuals without homes here in this state.

Using the same logic and the US Dept of Ed numbers and definition of homelessness, there may be as many as 3.25 million individuals in families experiencing homelessness across the country. Adding in the single adults and the youth population from 18 to 24 pushes that national number up to around 4,000,000 people without homes across the country.

Another way of thinking about the absolute numbers comes from a recent poll in the Denver metro area, done by a reputable polling company. The pollsters found that 13% of the respondents had themselves experienced homelessness at some point in their lives.[6] This is about the same as the percentages in the most recent national poll.[7] Given the population over 18 in the Denver metro area, some 270,000 persons could have experienced homelessness in their lives. Using the same percentage and applying it to the over 20 population in the country, about 29,000,000 people could have been homeless at some point in their lives. That’s a lot of people. You may well ask, why do people become homeless? Unfortunately, most of us think that people become homeless because of addictions, mental illness, or bad decisions. The current conventional paradigm is that most people without homes of their own are there because of personal traits and faults. However, many of us who are housed suffer from addictions and mental illness, and who among us has never made bad decisions? Increasingly, analysts are moving away from personal characteristics as the cause of homelessness to more systemic factors: lack of low-income housing and the rising cost of new housing; poverty-level wages for low-end jobs; increasing costs of health care, child-care, and transportation; the residual effects of the Great Recession; inattention to prevention of homelessness; and the rising social and economic inequities in our social and economic systems.[8]
Homelessness and Cannabis

Some people argue that, in Colorado, homelessness has increased because of legal recreational cannabis, that people are flocking to Colorado from various parts of the country because of recreational cannabis and once they are here, they become additions to the cohort of people without homes. This argument reinforces existing stereotypes about who those experiencing homelessness are and why they became homeless, i.e., that people experiencing homelessness are potheads and that this characteristic is simply exacerbated by recreational cannabis. The data that do exist do not support this contention (see below), and anecdotal evidence suggests that for the few individuals who have come here from out of state for cannabis came for medical reasons having to do with illnesses and disabilities that caused them to become homeless before they came.

From existing data, we do know a few things about the relationship between legalized recreational cannabis and homelessness. The annual Point- in-Time (PIT) survey conducted by the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative (MDHI) asks respondents each year about their last permanent residence. There does not appear to be any substantial increase in the total number of respondents stating that their last permanent residence was out of state between 2011 and 2017. In fact, there were more “out-of-staters” before 2014 than since then. There was also little change in the “out-of-staters” as a percentage of the total population of persons experiencing homelessness over the entire period from 2011 to 2017.[9] However, as MDHI points out, it is likely that “last permanent residence” is defined differently across respondents and we do not know whether the last permanent residence immediately preceded the current episode of homelessness. Additionally, changes in the definition of homelessness and who was surveyed during the PIT between 2013 and 2014 make it difficult to accurately compare the numbers after 2014 with the preceding years. Also, there have been a few local studies on the relationship of cannabis to homelessness. One such study was conducted in 2015 at the St. Francis Center, a local day shelter for adults experiencing homelessness. The St. Francis Center researcher surveyed 119 clients and asked them if the recent changes in marijuana legislation affected their decision to come to Colorado. Five percent of respondents answered “yes,” that the legalization of marijuana in Colorado was the main reason to move.[10] While this study provides some data on the topic, it is difficult to know if the individuals surveyed are representative of the population experiencing homelessness in Colorado.

A recent study in Pueblo raises comparable questions about the conven- tional wisdom regarding the relationship between cannabis and homelessness. As the author states,

Poverty rates remain high in Pueblo, but poverty rates have neither increased nor decreased as a result of legal cannabis. Pueblo has experienced substantial increases in homelessness. Some have blamed legal cannabis for increased homelessness, but there is no scientific evidence to support such claims. Further, cannabis is legal throughout Colorado. It makes no sense to argue that cannabis increases homelessness in Pueblo but decreases it in other counties. By far, the largest source of homelessness in Pueblo is Black Hills Energy. In 2016 alone, Black Hills Energy disconnected utilities to more than 7,000 Pueblo homes. If Black Hills Energy cuts off utilities to 7,000 homes in one year there will inevitably be astronomical increases in homelessness.[11]

In a recent study of homelessness in Adams County, a suburb of Denver, researchers at the Burnes Center had conversations with a series of individuals who were camping along a bike path immediately adjacent to the South Platte River. In response to a researcher’s question about leaving his former home in Arkansas to move to Colorado, the camper noted that Colorado was much nicer than Arkansas.

Cannabis and Tax Revenue
Revenue from taxes on cannabis have been increasing dramatically. Between 2014 and 2017, there was a four-fold increase in tax revenue, from $67.5 million to $247.4 million, and the projected figures for 2018 show yet another increase to $256.9 million.[12] Therefore, the question whether legalized recreational cannabis leads to more homelessness is the wrong question. If, for example, it does lead to more, then an obvious policy response would be to eliminate recreational cannabis. However, cannabis is here to stay because of the revenue. Therefore, if cannabis does increase homelessness, the important question becomes how should we mitigate the effects of the increase and provide housing and services? Should more of the revenue go to addressing homelessness?
Homelessness and Extreme Poverty

If the personal agency argument seems flawed and the conventional wisdom about cannabis and homelessness does not bear up under scrutiny, what then can we say about underlying causes of homelessness? Let’s turn to some of the more systemic reasons for answers.

In considering these statistics, it is essential to keep in mind the relationship between extreme poverty and homelessness. Some people will argue that we must deal only with homelessness, that trying to tackle poverty is too big a task. That ignores the inextricable relationship between the two. I mentioned earlier that the overall number of persons nationally without homes of their own has not declined substantially in the last 40 years. However, the people today were not without homes 40 years ago; today’s cohort consists of different individuals. Most of those who were without homes in the late 70s and early 80s have either found housing or have died. That means that we have failed to develop strategies for preventing people from becoming homeless; we have not figured out a way to “turn off the spigot.” At all levels of government and in the private sector, we have failed to attend to real prevention. In all probability, those individuals and families who have joined the ranks of those without homes of their own were extremely poor to begin with and were unable to counteract fiscal crises.

Let’s turn to some of the systemic issues. Nationally, we have a deficit of about 8 million housing units for people who are either extremely poor or experiencing homelessness.[13] Every state, on average, would have to create 160,000 units, overnight, to eliminate this deficit. For every 100 extremely poor and homeless households in the US, there are just 35 affordable and attainable housing units available.[14] Put another way, for every three households, there is one available unit. That’s not a very good ratio. In the Denver metro area, the Regional Director of HUD has estimated that we have a deficit of about 225,000 units.[15] Further, the bottom 20 percent of people who either rent or own their own homes spend 87 percent of their annual income on housing,[16] leaving them with just about $1,300 per year or about $100 per month for everything else, i.e., food, clothing, health care, child care, transportation, etc., one thousand dollars for the entire year, and that doesn’t even include those experiencing homelessness they are worse off. To make matters worse, out of the roughly $250 billion that the federal government provides in housing subsidies, only 20% goes to low income renters.[17] The rest goes to high-income homeowners through the mortgage interest deduction and deduction for various taxes. In other words, those who need it the most get the least. Another way to think about the resources necessary to have a home is by considering what is commonly referred to as the housing wage. This term, coined by the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, indicates what an individual must earn an hour to be able to afford an average two-bedroom housing unit. In the Denver metro area, the housing wage is $25.10 per hour.[18]  In the City of Boulder, the housing wage is over $50 an hour. Furthermore, with the minimum wage at $10.20 per hour, it would take about two and a half full-time jobs at minimum wage to be able to afford a two-bedroom house in Denver and almost five full-time jobs in Boulder. Working three full-time jobs doesn’t leave much time for eating and sleeping. Across the US, to afford a modest, two-bedroom rental home., renters need to earn a wage of $21.21 per hour.[19] The Housing Wage for a two-bedroom apartment is $13.96 higher than the federal minimum wage of $7.25. A renter earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour would need to work 117 hours per week to afford a two-bedroom rental home and 94.5 hours per week to afford a one-bedroom. In no state and in only a handful of counties across the country can a full-time worker earning the prevailing federal or state minimum wage afford a one-bedroom rental home.[20]
Another of the factors affecting homelessness is the growing financial inequity in the United States. A look at wages and wealth is one such example of the growing wage inequity. Between 1979 and 2007, incomes for the top 1% of wage earners rose 278%. During the same period, the bottom 20 percent of wage earners saw their incomes increase by 18%, not even keeping up with cost-of-living increases.[21] Keith Payne states, “In America, the richest 1 percent take in more than 20 percent of all income in the richest nation that has ever existed.”[22] Another indication of the growing inequity is the proportion of total wealth controlled by various wealth classes. In 1983, the top 20% controlled 91% of the wealth, and the bottom 80% controlled 9%. By 2010; the top 20% controlled 95% and the bottom 80% share was only 5%.[23] This is but one indication of the inequitable distribution in our capitalist economic system, and the inequality is getting worse. It is no wonder, under these circumstances, that those without homes are finding it even more difficult to locate housing and those in extreme poverty are becoming more at risk of ending up without homes of their own. In his recent book, Dream Hoarders, Richard Reeves examines the lengths to which the upper middle class in this country, i.e. those just below the top 1% of wage earners, go to maintain their economic stability and position. As Reeves indicates, everyone is enthusiastic about upward mobility. However, in order for some to move into the top 20% from lower wealth classes, some individuals who are in the upper middle class will have to move down, and no one is in favor of downward mobility. Therefore, the upper middle class makes every effort to protect their position, especially in terms of their children.[24] These statistics suggest the need for a major paradigm shift. In fact, the major factors that create homelessness are truly systemic in nature. There is an unconscionable lack of adequate housing for those in extreme poverty and those without homes of their own. There is a totally inadequate number of jobs at various skill levels across the country, and low wage jobs don’t begin to provide enough financial support to pay for even modest rents. Racial biases confound the systemic issues and create even more barriers to adequate housing and income for persons of color. In short, the conventional paradigm about personal faults as the major causes of homelessness is riddled with stereotypes and misinformation; it is woefully out of date. The unsubstantiated belief that recreational cannabis has resulted in skyrocketing increases in homelessness is just one piece of this failed paradigm. We must focus on the systemic problems if we are to address homelessness in any significant ways. Despite these truly depressing numbers and the out-of-date paradigm, a common response across the country to the scourge of homelessness has been the creation of a variety of local statutes that criminalize homelessness, including camping bans, bans on various aspects of panhandling, sit and lie ordinances, to name just a few, along with various strategies to enforce these statutes. Denver, for example, has instigated a series of street sweeps over the last 18 months to enforce its three-year-old camping ban. One of those individuals cited under the ban described it as sleeping under the influence of poverty.
In reality, local statutes that criminalize homelessness do absolutely nothing to address the systemic causes of homelessness nor do they provide solutions aimed at ending homelessness; they simply serve to move people from one place to another. As some have described it, it’s the whack-a-mole approach to addressing the issue. Some cities have taken a much more constructive approach to the issue, i.e. the creation of alternative, safe, secure living spaces for some of our most vulnerable citizens. Last year, I toured such an alternative in Portland, OR called Right to Dream Too. I came away from my tour very impressed by what a community of individuals had done to create an alternative living space. Fortunately, Denver has recently permitted the creation of its first tiny home village. The Beloved Community Village, under the sponsorship of the Mennonite Church, the Alternative Spaces Advocacy Project and several other groups in the City, consists of 11 tiny homes housing 14 people; it is in the RINO area of North Denver. The failure to consider such alternatives reflects bad social and economic policy for several reasons. In Denver, there is simply not enough shelter space for everyone currently living on the streets, despite some claims to the contrary. Furthermore, there are many people who find shelters unacceptable options. Therefore, it is incumbent on us to try to develop alternative places for people to sleep and to attend to their bodily functions. Failure to consider these options is short-sighted. Failure to consider alternatives is also bad economic policy. There is documented evidence that failure to provide adequate and appropriate services for those experiencing homelessness and living on the streets is far costlier than providing housing and services.[25] In addition, there is the cost of enforcing local anti-homelessness statutes.
What Will It Take to End Homelessness?

So, what will it take to truly address homelessness? It will be difficult and will take time, but we need to apply a real focus to this effort. Specifically, it will take legislation to expand the available resources. Recent action by the Denver Mayor and City Council to create a local affordable housing fund is laudable, but it isn’t enough. It will take advocacy and litigation to end the criminalization of those experiencing homelessness. It will take creative ideas to entice the private sector to invest in this problem. It will take much better evaluation so that we know which programs are particularly effective in improving the lives of all that we are trying to serve.

You may well ask; how do we generate these additional resources? Let me offer a few ideas. First, we could eliminate the mortgage interest deduction; it’s one of the most regressive tax instruments we have. Second, we could means test Social Security and Medicare. Overall, the American market economy has not done an effective job of creating a completely viable safety net. Therefore, we might even want to consider a Universal Basic Income.

There are many possible policy changes that we should consider. How- ever, the most important strategy revolves around changing public opinion. For most of us, our only contact with homelessness is those I mentioned before, the panhandlers and the street people. They reinforce all our negative stereotypes. So, we must change public attitudes. Only in this way will we build the necessary political will and commitment necessary to make the needed policy changes.

We need a national public outreach campaign, like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, to get people’s attention. My long-range vision is of a national net- work of federal, state, and local affiliates all working together to change public opinion. Frankly, the campaign will be much stronger if we reach out to issue areas that are related to homelessness and engage them in our campaign. These areas include: health, benefits, education, hunger, child care, transportation, etc. Somehow, we need to mobilize lots of different, but related organizations to come together to strategize how to change policy and programs. It’s called community organizing or building a political constituency.

We need to replace the outdated and outmoded paradigm of personal faults and choices regarding those experiencing homelessness and start thinking more perceptively and strategically about systemic reasons for our current predicament. We need to focus on our inadequate housing supply, on our wage structures and the availability of jobs for those without homes, on racial attitudes that create barriers for persons of color, on a criminal justice system that continually releases extremely poor parolees and patients to the streets without adequate preparation and follow up, and on a health care system that is too costly for many and frequently leaves very poor and homeless patients without adequate housing and care. We also need to challenge unwarranted claims about the relationship between cannabis and homelessness. In short, we need a new understanding about the nature of extreme poverty and homelessness, a new paradigm that isn’t afraid to examine our social and economic systems or fearful of demanding the kinds of changes that are needed to really address poverty and homelessness.


[1] Donald Burnes spent much of his professional career in the field of educational research and evaluation with a special focus on the education of poor and disadvantaged children, working both for the federal government in Washington and for the Education Commission of the States in Denver. In 1986, he became the Executive Director of the Samaritan Ministry of Greater Washington (DC), a church- sponsored nonprofit organization serving the poor and homeless. Following his three years of work there, he and his late wife wrote A Nation in Denial: The Truth about Homelessness, published in 1993. They spent the next two years traveling throughout the U.S., speaking to various groups and working with states and local communities helping them establish appropriate services for the homeless. Following his wife’s death in 2003, Burnes returned to Denver and became involved with the development and implementation of Denver’s 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness. He also joined the Board of the Metro Denver Homelessness Initiative (MDHI) for several years, and he served on the Governor’s Council on Homelessness in both Gov. Ritter’s and Gov. Hickenlooper’s administrations. Shortly after returning to Denver, Burnes became involved in the Housing and Homelessness Funders Collaborative, a group of funders providing grants to groups engaged in system-wide change in the area of affordable housing and homelessness. In 2013, Burnes founded the Burnes Institute on Poverty and Homelessness, a nonprofit organization that conducts research and provides technical assistance to policy makers and practitioners in the homelessness arena for the state of Colorado. In the summer of 2016, the Institute became the Burnes Center on Poverty and Homelessness at the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Denver. Burnes served as the de facto ED of the Center for a year and then as the board Chair. He is currently on sabbatical from his duties with the Center.
[2]“Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2014,” May 2015, Federal Reserve System Board of Directors.
[3]Colorado Department of Education: 2016–17 data. Fact Sheet Updates, March 2018.
[5]National Center for Homeless Education, December 2017.
[6]The Denver Foundation, “Perspectives on Homelessness in the Denver Metro Area: Key Findings from Opinion Research to Guide Public Will-Building,” Survey con- ducted January 14–23, 2015 by Dave Metz and Lori Weigel.
[7]Toro and Warren, 1991 “Homelessness, Psychology, and Public Policy: Introduction to Section Three,” American Psychologist 46 (11), 1205.
[8]For a more detailed analysis of these factors, see Chapter 17 of Ending Homelessness: Why We Haven’t, How We Can, edited by Burnes and DiLeo, published by Lynne Rienner Publishing, 2016.
[9]PIT reports from MDHI.
[11]Research Proposal Final, “Methods for Evaluating Practice and Progress,” by Lisa Zulawski, University of Denver, Graduate School of Social Work, 3/11/15.
[12]Institute for Cannabis Research, “Pueblo County Impact Study,” December 31, 2017.
[13]Institute for Cannabis Research, “Pueblo County Impact Study,” December 31, 2017.
[14]CO Dept of Revenue, “Marijuana Tax Data,” Updated May 2018.
[15]National Low-Income Housing Coalition, “The Gap: A Shortage of Affordable Homes,” March, 2018.
[17]Presentation at School of Public Affairs Breakfast Symposium, December, 2015.
[18]National Alliance to End Homelessness report, 2013.
[19]Collinson, Robert, Ingrid Gould Ellen, and Jens Ludwig. 2015. “Low Income Hous- ing Policy.” In Economics of Means-Tested Transfer Programs in the United States, ed. Robert A. Moffitt, Volume 2. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
[20]“The Gap.”
[23]Bristow Hardin Chapter in Ending Homelessness: Why We Haven’t, How We Can, 2016.
[24]Keith Payne, The Broken Ladder. New York City: Penguin Random House, 2017, p. 4.
[25]Bristow Hardin Chapter in Ending Homelessness: Why We Haven’t, How We Can, 2016.

Reeves, Richard V., Dream Hoarders: How The American Upper Middle Class is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That is A Problem and What to do About It. Washington, D.C., The Brookings Institution, 2017.

See Culhane and Metraux Study, 2002; Articles by Scott Keyes; Matthew Yglesias, “Giving housing to the homeless is three times cheaper than leaving them on the
streets,” Vox, February 4, 2015.

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