State Pot Taxes Will Help Fight Homelessness or The False Promise of Marijuana Money in Education and Homelessness

Colorado Governor and his staff visited the future St. Francis Center refuge in Capitol Hill earlier this week, highlighting the state’s effort to help fight homelessness with cannabis tax revenue. The state donated $250,000 to close funding gaps to complete the construction of the center at 1400 Washington Street, but that’s just a parcel of the pot tax dollars that the Colorado Department of Local Affairs is using to help the state’s homeless.

The money going to the St. Francis Center is part of a $15.3 million legislative appropriation enacted during the previous legislative session that’s been earmarked for the state’s Division of Housing to augment, expand and start housing programs throughout the state, according to DOLA communications director Denise Stepto.

“A lot of comments are made about how this money is used. People bring up schools, the irony of using revenue from a substance to help homeless people,” she says of cannabis tax revenue. “There are places that you can use this money that makes a big difference.” While school construction projects gained most of the initial attention, education and public works both need hundreds of millions of dollars in funding that commercial cannabis revenue just can’t keep up with, according to former Colorado Director of Marijuana Coordination Andrew Freedman.

“the public-education benefit of legalization served as a major selling point for the proposal during election season. Pro-legalization advocates even aired ads with slogans like, “Jobs for our people. Money for our schools. Who could ask for more?” and  “Strict Regulation. Fund Education.” Politically, the tactic seems to have paid off given that, in the year or so that’s passed since the law went into effect, Coloradans continue to cite public funding as the greatest advantage of legalization. A 2017 survey found that most respondents saw an “upside” to legalization, with more than half of those adults identifying “tax revenue” as the greatest benefit (versus other “upsides” such as easier access, fewer arrests, and tourism). And more than half of all the survey participants said that public schools should receive the most funding from marijuana tax dollars; public schools were one of six options respondents could choose from.”

“When you have $15.3 million and throw it into a bucket that needs a billion dollars, it gets swallowed,” Stepto says. “We continue as a nation to talk about how we can solve this homeless problem, and now we have resources going towards it.” Some local governments, such as Aurora, have already begun using pot tax dollars to fund homeless shelters.

Stepto says around $6.5 million was awarded to housing projects around the state in the first sixty days since DOLA received the new funding. So far it has helped move homeless Coloradans into 279 supportive housing units, provided 147 rental vouchers and created $50,000 for a youth-security deposit fund that helps homeless youth pay for a deposit on a rental home, which equates to forty units for homeless youth, according to DOLA.

When completed in December, the St. Francis Center will have fifty units for the homeless and disabled, who must pay 30 percent of their income in addition to the rental vouchers they receive from the state for housing. Tenants will each have a case manager to help them get back on the road toward living independently.

“You know that by housing people, you’re helping them on that road to stability,” Stepto explains. “It’s also more cost-effective than having them run through the system; prison, hospitals, social programs – they’re way more expensive than supportive housing.”

In the grand scheme of helping the St. Francis Center to the finish line, the $250,000 from pot revenue was relatively minor compared to a $10 million tax-credit donation from Boston Capital and land donated by St. John’s Cathedral of the Episcopal Church, but St. Francis Center executive director Tom Luehrs is appreciative all the same.

Without the money from DOLA, Luehrs says, his organization would’ve had to either “beg, borrow and steal” to find the funds needed for completion or take on a mortgage for the property, which is difficult for charitable groups with little disposable income. “Would it be delayed? It could’ve been,” he says of the project. “Or we might have had to cut back on unneeded parts of the building. It wouldn’t have been the building we wanted.”

Those interested in donating or volunteering time to the St. Francis Center can learn more on its website. Luehrs says his team is still looking for new furniture to provide the tenants when they move in, as well as additional funding for maintenance and management of the new building.

“Some of these people have been on the street for years. Maybe one, maybe seventeen years,” he says. “Most people don’t walk in here with anything besides the clothes on their bodies. What we’re trying to do here is give them a new lease on life.”

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