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Denver May Allocate $500M for Homelessness. But Is It Enough?

If the City Council approves, Mayor Mike Johnston’s budget will allocate hundreds of millions more dollars than other cities around the state. Advocates are supportive of Johnston’s “housing first” approach.

When Denver Mayor Mike Johnston's administration swept a homeless encampment across from Colorado's " Governor's Mansion" last month, Maurice Richardson hoped to get into a shelter.

City officials the week before had given the homeless encampment's 70 or so residents a seven-day notice of the looming cleanup, which cited "deteriorating conditions, including trash, human waste and discarded needles" as reasons for the sweep. The city created a signup sheet for the residents, offering rooms at a hotel that now serves as a housing shelter.

It's unclear exactly why, but Richardson, who wore a hospital band and who told The Denver Gazette he suffers from disabilities, was among those who couldn't get into the hotel. He was told to look into other options, he said.

"I just want to have a place to lay down, cook a pot of beans and die," Richardson said.

In many ways, Richardson's case captures the complexity of Denver's soaring homelessness crisis.

Of Colorado's major cities, Denver saw the biggest increase in the number of homeless people — 5,818 as of January, up from 4,794 last year, according to a point-in-time count that offers a single night's snapshot of the crisis back in January.

Between 2022 and 2023, the number of "unsheltered" people — those who sleep in public places, such as in tents, cars or the streets — grew by 33 percent, from 2,078 to 2,763, according to the survey.

In contrast, Aurora's homeless population stood at 572 in the same survey, down from 612 the year before.

Meanwhile, El Paso County saw a 17 percent drop in its homeless population — from a high of 1,562 in 2019 to 1,302 in January.

And, among Colorado's three biggest cities, Denver is spending hundreds of millions more, even as its homelessness crisis shows no signs of easing.

The contrast in spending is, indeed, stark: Assuming councilmembers approve Johnston's budget plan for next year, Denver would be allocating half a billion dollars for the crisis over two years. By comparison, Colorado Springs earmarked about $6.2 million for homelessness this year. Aurora, meanwhile, spent about $5.6 million on the challenge last year.

A State of Emergency

Johnston, a Democrat, declared a state of emergency on his first full day in office and vowed to transition 1,000 people off of Denver's streets by the end of the year, arguing that the city's "incremental approach ... isn't getting people housed at scale."

In his city, the mayor said, "nobody has to be homeless."

The new mayor's focus on homelessness was expected. During his campaign, Johnston unveiled an ambitious goal — solve homelessness in his first term as mayor.

Over the next few weeks, the new mayor hunkered down. His administration activated an emergency center, appointed a homeless advisor, and sought the cooperation of councilmembers, who have agreed to extend his emergency declaration three times already. The council is expected to extend that declaration anew next month.

"With the right amount of focus and political leadership, there could be a significant reduction in unsheltered homelessness," Cole Chandler, the mayor's senior advisor for homelessness, told The Denver Gazette. "Mayor Johnston ran on that platform of a very ambitious goal to end unsheltered homelessness during his first term."

Undergirding Johnston's promise to end homelessness is an approach popular among the city's homeless advocacy groups: "housing first." The idea is to respond to an individual's most acute need first, which is housing, and then offer other services later.

The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless explained the concept this way: "It is important to note that housing first does not mean 'Housing Only.' Rather, Housing First best practices dictate that intensive treatment and case management be offered to those housed through the program."

"The main distinction is that treatment is not a pre-condition of receiving housing," the group added. "Treatment services are provided after housing is obtained, once the treatment provider has gained the trust of the individual and is ready to accept treatment."

Aurora's conservative council, on the other hand, took notes from strategies used in Houston, Texas, and borrowed from "work-first" and "treatment-first" models by providing anyone in need with emergency services but offering more robust services to people who are participating in the workforce and receiving any behavioral health treatment they may need.

"We do have two very different approaches," Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman said during a business event in July. "I mean, housing first, treatment first ... But I wish them the best and I hope it works."

In Colorado Springs, its new mayor, Yemi Mobolade, described his city's approach as "all-hands-on-deck," a "holistic approach with different pathways, and we don't necessarily say 'housing first.'"

So far, Johnston's administration has adopted an aggressive, two-step process to get people off the streets: Sweep encampments and move homeless people to shelters.

Johnston's Tiny Homes

A few days ago, Denver's new mayor described the city's biggest hurdle in getting people off the streets this way: "We know the most significant obstacle to our success on getting people into housing is getting high-quality units built quickly and affordably."

Johnston's solution to the conundrum is "tiny homes," prefabricated housing units that can be deployed quickly at minimal cost.

Supporters said these tiny units or "pallet shelters" bridge the gap between transitional housing and permanent options by offering a unit that is cheaper and quicker to produce. Pallet PBC, which the city contracted to deliver 200 units, said its shelters can be assembled in under an hour — while giving residents a sense of privacy.

As envisioned, these "tiny homes" will be erected in "micro-communities," which will serve as hubs for transitional housing, complete with city services.

The mayor's office has proposed "micro-communities" in 11 sites across each city district, and the idea is quickly taking shape. City officials broke ground on the first micro-community earlier this month at 2301 S. Sana Fe Drive by Evans Avenue.

And the city is on track to procure about 500 "tiny homes" — 200 pallet shelters from a company based out of Everett, Wash., and another 300 "manufactured sleeping units" from Clayton Properties Group, Inc. In the former, the city dispensed with public bidding; in the latter, the city picked Clayton Properties after soliciting proposals.

In addition to micro-communities, Denver hopes to augment its shelter capacity by converting hotels into housing units.

Ultimately, the Johnston administration wants to "develop or preserve 3,000 units of affordable housing per year over the course of this four-year term," said Chandler, the mayor's homeless czar.

A Mental Health Crisis?

In theory, 12,000 affordable housing units — 3,000 each year for four years — would be sufficient to give all of Denver's roughly 6,000 homeless people a roof above their heads.

But some aren't convinced that homelessness is only or primarily a housing affordability problem, in which, if housing is more accessible, people will cease to live on the streets.

In July, Craig Arfsten, president and co-founder of Citizens for a Safe and Clean Denver, said his group supports Johnston's promise to end homelessness. But instead of focusing on housing, the group urged the city to turn its attention to "recovery-oriented solutions for Denver's addiction, mental health, and unsheltered homelessness crisis."

"Denver has placed a focus on housing affordability since 2005, and we all see the results," Arfsten said in a statement. "It's time to consider the role that drugs and mental illness play into why someone remains chronically unsheltered."

In August, Citizens for a Safe and Clean Denver — which describes itself as a non-partisan group that seeks to offer "alternate narrative, and data-based, common-sense solutions" — urged Johnston again to focus on mental health, saying even if the mayor successfully gets 1,000 homeless people into shelters, "we cannot house our way out of this crisis because, well-intentioned as he may be, he's fighting the wrong battle."

"The mayor has not yet meaningfully acknowledged the primary role that addiction and mental health play in creating unsheltered homelessness. Until these facts are recognized and addressed, Denver's crisis will only grow," the group said. "We are tolerating and destigmatizing public drug consumption while enabling lives to be lost to addiction."

The mayor's office maintains that Johnston's overall strategy is on the right track.

"The first way is through prevention efforts," Chandler, the mayor's advisor, said. "You see in the mayor's 2024 budget, a historic investment in rental utility assistance, historic investments in eviction protections, and trying to curb new injuries in the homelessness."

He added, "The next piece is about how do we support people that are in homelessness in better ways and keep them safe and get them on a path of stable housing. And then the third piece is about actual permanent housing resources."

817 More To Go

As of Saturday, the Johnston administration has successfully moved 183 homeless people from the streets into shelters, according to the city's dashboard.

When the city housed 168 a few days ago, Chandler told The Denver Gazette, "We feel really proud to have hit that number."

"We wanted to take a huge and measurable chunk out of that right off the bat," he said.

"We know that we have a long way to go toward the goal," Chandler added. "We're really excited about some of the units that were stacking up in the pipeline. We know that the pipeline skews toward the end of the year and so we're excited about a pretty historic month of December."

One of Denver's homeless citizens hoping to take advantage of what Johnston has to offer is Dennis Wamsley, who had camped at 7th Avenue and Grant Street and was swept out of the area during a city cleanup on Sept. 26.

But like Richardson, the resident of the encampment across the " Governor's Mansion" last month, Wamsley, too, couldn't get into a hotel shelter.

"I don't know where I am going," he said.

(c)2023 The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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