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Denver shelters cite legal pot in homeless upswing

December 24, 2014

DENVER (AP) — 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.

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.

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