Jun 4, 2020

The co-author of three books on poverty, Donald Burnes has served as an executive director for various nonprofits. Culminating a longtime commitment to advancing racial equity and fighting poverty, Donald W. and Lynn K. Burnes gave a generous gift to Colorado Center on Law and Policy, creating The Burnes Institute for Poverty Research at CCLP.

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Homelessness is a case study for societal ills

by | Jun 4, 2020

(Editor’s note: Don Burnes is the co-founder of the Burnes Center for Poverty Research at CCLP. He has studied and wrote about poverty and homelessness throughout his career).

Much has been written about the national scourge of homelessness. There have been various research studies on the demographics of homelessness, epidemiological studies of various kinds, evaluations of programs and the identification of evidence-based practices, collections of first-person and third-person stories about individuals with lived experience, pronouncements about strategies for improving various conditions and policies related to the issue, among others, including my own co-authored “Journeys Out of Homelessness: The Voices of Lived Experience” with Jamie Rife.

In addition, national groups like the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the National Coalition on Homelessness, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty and the Interagency Council on Homelessness regularly disseminate literature reviews, training materials, and evidence-based practice recommendations on strategies, policies and programs to address this problem.

Interestingly, virtually all the writers on the topic seem to view homelessness as an isolated example of the breakdown of the fabled American dream – a construct recognized mostly by affluent or middle class white Americans but pretty much elusive to everyone else. This is typical of the American approach to social issues (i.e., the isolation of a problem so that it is self-contained in its own social and cultural box). In the case of homelessness, after almost a decade of the rise of homelessness across the country, Congress enacted the McKinney-Vento legislation that created a separate funding stream, a separate regulatory stream, and a separate programmatic stream for those experiencing homelessness.

Much the same can be said for any of the numerous other groups that have suffered discrimination across the country. The experiences of people of color, undocumented immigrants, members of the LGBTQ community, people in poverty, those in mental institutions, and those in the criminal justice system, among others are typically considered in isolation from each other.

Although each subgroup has experienced systemic discrimination in different and separate ways, in some respects the experiences of all the groups are a mirror image of each other, namely the creation and maintenance of policies and programs at all levels that undermine the ability of members of each group to truly live the ideal known as the American dream, or to simply live.

In fact, an analysis of aspects of homelessness should only be considered a single case study of how we as a country have treated marginalized populations in our midst. Our national history is replete with examples of how the living conditions and the fortunes of other groups have been systematically eviscerated across the recent decades. People experiencing homelessness are not alone; they are but one example of “how some people across the country get screwed,” according to one observer.

Considering all this, why do a case study? There are several reasons. First, focusing on homelessness in a silo does not work. No one cares; it is stigmatized; and it misses the broken systems that perpetuate the larger problem. Second, placing homelessness within the wider narrative of broken systems and the broken social contract makes this issue much more relatable and contextual. Third, framing homelessness in this context is key to moving it in people’s minds AWAY from an individual culpability/responsibility narrative and into a more careful examination of systemic breakdowns.

Finally, anchoring homelessness in a broken systems and social contract narrative will encourage empathy, deeper scholarship of what is going on, and it will broaden base of potential supporters of this inter-sectional problem.

Unfortunately, much of our national conscience about groups that are the victims of discrimination focuses on the distinction that many make between the worthy and the unworthy poor. Those who are deemed “worthy” are people who suffer wretched circumstances through no fault of their own. Those who are unworthy are those who suffer wretched circumstances because of their own faults, their “failings.” Many of those in the marginalized groups are viewed as “unworthy” and are rewarded with discriminatory practices and great societal antipathy.

Therefore, it is incumbent on all of us to consider two pivotal issues: first, we must not separate homelessness from the systematic discrimination that many in our society suffer from, and we must link arms with those who suffer from the same kind of treatment to build a campaign to truly address this breakdown of “the American dream.” Second, we must understand that members of each subgroup are not homogeneous; they are not all the same. Everyone is a unique individual, and each is worthy of being considered part of our greater community.

We must not marginalize anybody. Everyone is someone’s mother, father, brother, sister, aunt, uncle, friend and neighbor. We are all in this together. With Colorado and the nation facing myriad crisis from pandemics, economic meltdown and racial injustice, it’s more important than ever to recognize this universal truth to make true progress in all the social ills that we collectively face.

-By Don Burnes

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To maintain health and well-being, people of all ages need access to quality health care that improves outcomes and reduces costs for the community. Health First Colorado, the state's Medicaid program, is public health insurance for low-income Coloradans who qualify. The program is funded jointly by a federal-state partnership and is administered by the Colorado Department of Health Care Policy & Financing.

Benefits of the program include behavioral health, dental services, emergency care, family planning services, hospitalization, laboratory services, maternity care, newborn care, outpatient care, prescription drugs, preventive and wellness services, primary care and rehabilitative services.

In tandem with the Affordable Care Act, Colorado expanded Medicaid eligibility in 2013 - providing hundreds of thousands of adults with incomes less than 133% FPL with health insurance for the first time increasing the health and economic well-being of these Coloradans. Most of the money for newly eligible Medicaid clients has been covered by the federal government, which will gradually decrease its contribution to 90% by 2020.

Other populations eligible for Medicaid include children, who qualify with income up to 142% FPL, pregnant women with household income under 195% FPL, and adults with dependent children with household income under 68% FPL.

Some analyses indicate that Colorado's investment in Medicaid will pay off in the long run by reducing spending on programs for the uninsured.


Hunger, though often invisible, affects everyone. It impacts people's physical, mental and emotional health and can be a culprit of obesity, depression, acute and chronic illnesses and other preventable medical conditions. Hunger also hinders education and productivity, not only stunting a child's overall well-being and academic achievement, but consuming an adult's ability to be a focused, industrious member of society. Even those who have never worried about having enough food experience the ripple effects of hunger, which seeps into our communities and erodes our state's economy.

Community resources like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as Food Stamps, exist to ensure that families and individuals can purchase groceries, with the average benefit being about $1.40 per meal, per person.

Funding for SNAP comes from the USDA, but the administrative costs are split between local, state, and federal governments. Yet, the lack of investment in a strong, effective SNAP program impedes Colorado's progress in becoming the healthiest state in the nation and providing a better, brighter future for all. Indeed, Colorado ranks 44th in the nation for access to SNAP and lost out on more than $261 million in grocery sales due to a large access gap in SNAP enrollment.

See the Food Assistance (SNAP) Benefit Calculator to get an estimate of your eligibility for food benefits.


Every child deserves the nutritional resources needed to get a healthy start on life both inside and outside the mother's womb. In particular, good nutrition and health care is critical for establishing a strong foundation that could affect a child's future physical and mental health, academic achievement and economic productivity. Likewise, the inability to access good nutrition and health care endangers the very integrity of that foundation.

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) provides federal grants to states for supplemental foods, health care referrals, and nutrition information for low-income pregnant, breastfeeding and non-breastfeeding postpartum women and to infants and children up to age five who are found to be at nutritional risk.

Research has shown that WIC has played an important role in improving birth outcomes and containing health care costs, resulting in longer pregnancies, fewer infant deaths, a greater likelihood of receiving prenatal care, improved infant-feeding practices, and immunization rates

Financial Security:
Colorado Works

In building a foundation for self-sufficiency, some Colorado families need some extra tools to ensure they can weather challenging financial circumstances and obtain basic resources to help them and their communities reach their potential.

Colorado Works is Colorado's Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program and provides public assistance to families in need. The Colorado Works program is designed to assist participants in becoming self-sufficient by strengthening the economic and social stability of families. The program provides monthly cash assistance and support services to eligible Colorado families.

The program is primarily funded by a federal block grant to the state. Counties also contribute about 20% of the cost.


Child care is a must for working families. Along with ensuring that parents can work or obtain job skills training to improve their families' economic security, studies show that quality child care improves children's academic performance, career development and health outcomes.

Yet despite these proven benefits, low-income families often struggle with the cost of child care. Colorado ranks among the top 10 most expensive states in the country for center-based child care. For families with an infant, full-time enrollment at a child care center cost an average of $15,140 a year-or about three-quarters of the total income of a family of three living at the Federal Poverty Level (FPL).

The Colorado Child Care Assistance Program (CCCAP) provides child care assistance to parents who are working, searching for employment or participating in training, and parents who are enrolled in the Colorado Works Program and need child care services to support their efforts toward self-sufficiency. Most of the money for CCCAP comes from the federal Child Care and Development Fund. Each county can set their own income eligibility limit as long as it is at or above 165% of the federal poverty level and does not exceed 85% of area median income.

Unfortunately, while the need is growing, only an estimated one-quarter of all eligible children in the state are served by CCCAP. Low reimbursement rates have also resulted in fewer providers willing to accept CCCAP subsidies.