Many Coloradans will agree that fair access to housing is a major problem in our state, and the majority consider it a crisis. Coloradans also agree that something needs to be done to address the housing crisis and ensure every Coloradan has safe shelter to stay in each night.

However, placing the responsibility on one group of people, who are disproportionately impacted by the economic issue that is the housing crisis, is not the right way to address it. That is what The Gazette did in its Nov. 16 editorial, “Accountability for Aurora’s homeless.”

When discussing the city of Aurora’s housing crisis, and a proposal to create a new multimillion-dollar campus to help Aurora’s unhoused population navigate support services, The Gazette’s editorial board ignored the fact there is a lack of adequate and appropriate services available to the unhoused population in Aurora. It instead segmented the population into those the author deemed as deserving of help, and those the piece wrongfully claims are houseless because it is their “lifestyle choice.”

The reality is the specific circumstances that may have led to someone becoming houseless can be complex. It is wrongly believed to be a choice when that is often not the case, and no matter the circumstances — they should never be a prerequisite for receiving assistance during this crisis. Dividing people who are unhoused into categories of deserving or not deserving of help dehumanizes and stigmatizes a vulnerable population in need of housing, shelter, and mental health services.

People who are unhoused are our neighbors, not our plight. They are humans, friends, and family, who have navigated systems in a society that dismisses their dignity and are not seen as those of us who are housed get to be seen.

That is why it is imperative that the focus not be on “holding people who are houseless accountable” but on the solution, on what will help more Coloradans find stable housing, a living wage to allow them to keep it, and other supportive services that will help them rebuild their lives.

Data proves housing-first models work. We have seen its continued success in cities across the nation, including Denver. The Denver Supportive Housing Social Impact Bond initiative (Denver SIB), launched in 2016, is a testimony to the effectiveness of the housing-first approach. Over a five-year period, 77% of participants remained in stable housing along with a 40% reduction in arrests, a 30% reduction in jail stays and a 65% reduction in detoxification services among participants.

Unfortunately, Aurora’s recently approved proposal does not follow the housing-first model and incorporates conditions for people to meet to access transitional housing.

When people have safe, stable shelter, a bathroom, a closet, access to real rest and the ability to cook and store food — we can reset and rebuild. When our lives are not stable, it is impossible for us to create that stability on the street.

Substance use was also a focus of the editorial’s remarks, parceling out who was deserving of support and who must fix themselves before it should be offered. Many individuals, housed or not, are not getting the support they need through the current systems which are built to “fix” people rather than support and understand those who turn to self-medication to cope and continue. This is not a moral failure of the individual; it is a moral failure of the system and those who maintain it.

Gatekeeping basic needs will never solve these issues. Ensuring a person’s basic needs are met and providing support that will allow us all to thrive should be the goal of any publicly funded program. Too many people have been left behind and lost because of failed policy surrounding people who are unhoused and use substances.

It is time we center on lived experience and data — not opinions and public perception — to find solutions.

This op-ed was originally published in the Denver Gazette.