Arnie Swenson, Colorado Fund for People with Disabilities Mission Supports founder and director of Essential Life Services, shows off sensory art from Access Gallery hanging at the Colorado Fund for People with Disabilities.
Last year, about 3,500 people were experiencing homelessness in Denver, according to the Metro Denver Homelessness Initiative. Many of them have the added complication of an intellectual or developmental disability (I/DD) — sometimes with no knowledge or proof of it.
Arnie Swenson, Colorado Fund for People with Disabilities director of Essential Life Services, has worked with people with I/DD who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless for years. He found that these individuals often have no family, no records of their disabilities and difficulty accessing benefits that could help them find stable housing. They may have compounding mental health or substance abuse problems, too.
“This is a very misunderstood group of people,” Arnie said.
In 2010, Arnie started Mission Supports, a program CFPD has operated since September 2017. Mission Supports provides transitional case management to people with I/DD who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. It helps them prove they are eligible for important state, Medicaid and Social Security benefits and sometimes offers representative payee services.
Benefits may include state Supported Living Services Waiver or I/DD Long-Term Medicaid Supports, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Medicaid services.
Many Mission Supports clients receive referrals to the program from staff at shelters, government agencies, Adult Protective Services or Denver Health who recognize signs of I/DD. Mission Supports takes it from there.
“We’re meeting people who sometimes don’t even remember what school they went to. We find those records and get all of those requirements,” he said.
Tracking down documents and waiting for a determination of eligibility for I/DD services and support can take years. Mission Supports sticks with people until they are stable, offering support through the transition from homelessness to housing.
The program works with people who have been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, Down syndrome, fragile X, fetal alcohol disorder, epilepsy, cerebral palsy or developmental delay. They also help people who attended special education classes as a child, or were hospitalized for brain injury, epilepsy, other childhood disorders or extended sickness.
Some have substance abuse issues or mental health complications as well, which may have hidden their I/DD from medical professionals and first responders.
“The burden of mental illness is usually what’s emphasized with folks, but if you have an I/DD, it’s more complicated,” Arnie said.
This year, the program is projected to serve 70 people. Individuals go through three phases of transitional support: crisis management, building long-term sustainability and maintaining support. Once they have shifted into the final phase, they work with peer mentors and support groups to help prevent a return to crisis.
Mission Supports receives mill levy funding from Rocky Mountain Human Services. Mill levy funding is property tax revenue dedicated to helping Denver residents with I/DD. RMHS dedicates a portion of the mill levy funding it receives to community organizations, like CFPD, that provide unique services and support.