Jul 8, 2021

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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Tough love isn’t the answer

by | Jul 8, 2021

Editor’s note: The following guest column by Donald W. Burnes was submitted to the editorial board of the Denver Post but was declined by the newspaper. Don Burnes is the co-founder of the Burnes Center for Poverty Research at CCLP. He has studied and written about poverty and homelessness throughout his career. Read more about the author and the institute here.

In her recent column “We need tough love for those living on the streets,” published July 6, 2021 in The Denver Post, Krista Kafer says, “We’re doing too much” to help those experiencing homelessness. Kafer, a staff columnist for The Denver Post, describes unhoused individuals using all the classic tropes—that they’re drug addicts, alcoholics, and people just too darn lazy to care about their own human dignity. What’s worse, she claims, we encourage the squalor on our streets by spending too much money on this population, when all they need is a dose of “tough love.”

Unfortunately, Ms. Kafer has it all wrong—both in her assessment of the problem, and in her prescription for the cure. Her characterizations of homelessness rely on stereotypes that fail to capture the real picture of homelessness today. Most people experiencing homelessness are not addicts or alcoholics. Most do not live in tents. Some 40% are employed full-time and another 20% are employed part-time, but simply do not earn enough to afford an apartment in Denver’s stratospheric market.

According to one estimate, an hourly wage of $30 (more than twice our minimum wage) is required to afford the median 2-bedroom unit in the Denver metro. In addition, according to Common Sense Institute, by 2019 our region faced a deficit of 175,000 housing units, further compounding the difficulties of finding housing. It’s no wonder we have people without homes.

In our recent book, Journeys Out of Homelessness: The Voices of Lived Experience, my co-author and I were honored to share nine stories of individuals who experienced homelessness, written by those individuals themselves. In almost every case, they lost their housing not to alcoholism, drug addiction, or mental illness, but to parental dysfunction, administrative error, medical misdiagnosis, poor legal advice, and economic downturn. And in every case, these individuals overcame homelessness—not through the cruel fiction of “tough love,” but through networks of support, caring individuals, and community connections.

Ms. Kafer claims we spend $26,000 per person experiencing homelessness. This is a gross distortion based on a significant undercounting of the population. According to the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative, there were over 31,000 people in 2019 who were unhoused at one time or another. At $26,000 per person, we would have spent $806 million in one year. In reality, we spent a small fraction of this number, and some of what we did spend went toward expensive policing activities of the sort Ms. Kafer believes we need to increase.

Nevertheless, recent studies suggest that we would save over 50% of what we currently spend on homelessness if we just provided the necessary housing and services. These costs would more than offset what we spend today on health care and criminal justice interactions with the unhoused.

Ms. Kafer’s “tough love” approach is predicated on two assumptions: that people experience homelessness because they choose to do so, and that they could escape their situation if only they tried a little harder. For her, people without homes are victims only of their own moral failings, and as she quips, “Choices must have consequences.” In fact, most individuals experiencing homelessness do not choose those dire circumstances and work hard to escape. But all too often, the resources they need to succeed are simply out of reach.

Overcoming homelessness requires financial resources, better health care, employment, childcare, better educational opportunities, and, frankly, a more humane system of connecting individuals with the support they need.

To quote Ms. Kafer, “Necessity is necessary for change.” On this we can agree. We cannot continue to hold the paternalistic attitudes and negative stereotypes that have hampered real problem-solving for so long. We must abandon this notion of “tough love” and focus on the support systems we know lift families out of homelessness. Denver absolutely should be a safe, healthy, and secure place for residents to call home. That should be true for all our residents.

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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.