No one sets out to be homeless. And yet, homelessness is a chronic social challenge across the country, as it is right here in Denver. We cannot abide this. This is not who we are, as a community, and this is not who we want to be in the future. There are countless reasons that someone finds themselves homeless, and those surely need to be addressed in the long term.
But homelessness cannot wait. The fact is that we value every individual here in Denver. We want everyone to thrive, not just survive. And so, we must address this challenge today. We must no longer accept that homelessness is a part of big city life. It is not. Homelessness is not acceptable in Denver, and we must work to end it.
In Denver we have an opportunity to change the course of the thousands of people who are homeless here every year. Several years ago City Council passed the Urban Camping Ban which criminalized homelessness and more importantly, did nothing to solve the problem. Through innovation, bold thinking and compassion we can work together to find solutions that actually work.
There are communities that are having success at changing this complex issue. The state of Utah has seen a 91% reduction in chronic homelessness over a ten-year period between 2005-2015. New York City has seen a similar drop through intentional solutions and data that tracks needs. This is a very complicated problem but one that needs to be addressed. We can do better, and as mayor, I will:
Change our attitude towards homelessness
We will see homeless individuals as our unhoused neighbors who deserve our attention and respect, not as people to be pushed along. We will treat people with dignity and create solutions that help lift people up, recognizing that doing anything else is neither humane nor kind. We will recognize that until we see this city from the perspective of those most in need, we will never truly see the city’s challenges, and we will work together to overcome homelessness in Denver.
First, I will commit to adding an additional $6 million to the homeless budget. Then we must make a commitment to stop treating all homeless individuals the same, recognizing their unique needs. According to Lloyd Pendleton, Housing First advocate in Utah, homeless individuals are categorized as “temporary” (75%), “episodic” (10%), and “chronic” (15%). Chronic homelessness is defined as an unaccompanied adult, continuously without housing for a year or more or for more than four times in three years. Chronic homelessness consumes 50%-60% of our municipal resources and each chronically homeless individual costs between $20,000 and $45,000 per year in emergency services. We must stop lumping all people who are homeless together and start categorizing them into these three groups so that the proper services can be provided:
§ Temporary: The majority of homeless are those experiencing a temporary situation. The least expensive option for a city is to help people before they experience losing their home. As mayor, I will work to develop intervention support for families and individuals on the brink of losing their home and provide emergency wrap-around services to help re-establish stability and keep families off the street.
§ Episodic: Intervention and proper services can reduce episodic homelessness, in particular provide access to employment opportunities and job training.
§ Chronic: The chronically homeless are the most challenging to support and this population creates the biggest crisis for the city. Many of the chronically homeless need mental health, addiction or healthcare services and often all of the above. We must create a temporary housing program and more mental health facilities that allow them to get services while in a stable living situation.
Stop the sweeps and shift to services
Sweeps are inhumane – they move people along to nowhere and result in individuals losing their possessions. The homeless sweeps that have actively moved the homeless encampments around the city have only worsened the situation and have cost the taxpayers millions of dollars – resources that could be directed towards solutions. The sweeps also make an already vulnerable population more vulnerable, and make it difficult for service providers to make repeat visits and provide support to get people off the street. We will take the money from the sweeps and invest in solutions, including:
§ Work with all first responders on incarceration diversion, which creates a cycle of homelessness. Instead, we’ll work to get people to services and support they need.
§ Providing temporary lockers for people to store their items while looking for work.
§ Deploying more mental health and social workers to meet people on the streets to establish what category they fall into and what services they require. The City can serve in a role to break down silos and coordinate services between providers to help leverage resources.
§ Provide trash receptacles and temporary bathrooms to keep our streets clean and to restore dignity by providing basic needs.
§ Stopping the permitting of community groups to feed people in the parks. We need to bring people to shelters and other facilities so that they can access healthy foods and get the services they need.
Adopt a housing first model
Data reflects that the best way to end homelessness is a housing first model. This includes accepting people where ever they are in their lives and getting them off the street into a safe place. The City must take a lead role in facilitating these efforts as many chronically homeless are not in a place to pass background checks to obtain housing through other means. There are multiple things the City can do to move to a housing first model:
§ Increase the number of 24/7 shelters and improve the facilities: To significantly reduce chronic homelessness we must be aggressive in identifying the issues people are facing and getting them the services they need. Shelters that operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week offer more opportunities to stabilize those who are chronically homeless, although we must be sure that all these facilities are safe, clean and adequate. Currently, Denver has too few day shelters and the night shelters put people on the street beginning at 6:00 AM. Therefore, city corners and parks are the natural gathering places to spend the day.
§ Establish temporary housing solutions: Our unhoused neighbors will go where they can get services and where they can create safe shelter for themselves. We can provide these opportunities for them through temporary housing solutions while we ramp up more permanent solutions. The single tiny home village for the homeless in Denver - Beloved Community Village - was supported by the community in the River North Art District through my leadership in bringing everyone together to overcome concerns. It was a great success, but the City has yet to identify how to advance additional projects. Utilizing city property across the City and freeing up zoning restrictions is a start. We can also explore incentives to property owners to utilize private owned land for these uses. The City can be a leader in facilitating community partnerships to make these temporary sites a success, and together we can provide a diversity of accommodations, where services can be directed while we as a City invest in longer-term solutions.
§ Invest in supportive and affordable housing: Ultimately, we need to prioritize supportive housing that gives our homeless longer-term stability. Through a focus on affordable housing and partnerships with service providers we can provide housing with services that help our people get back on their feet. This housing can be a partnership between the city and both non-profit and for-profit organizations who are working to be a part of the solution.
Provide employment opportunities
Two years ago, the City of Denver launched the Denver Day Works program, which provides day labor for pay to our homeless while providing employment support and job training to get them into permanent employment and housing. Through my leadership the River North Art District was the first organization to bring this program to neighborhoods. In its first year, more than 100 people gained full-time work. This program should be expanded, and partnerships with other organizations should be a goal. People regain dignity when they have stability, housing and a purpose, and we can help provide that and address labor shortage gaps in our city.