In Mayor Mike Johnston’s budget for Denver he requested $48.6 million to help shelter 1,000 homeless people by the end of 2023. He is asking for almost $40 million dollars to do the same in 2024.
Since his election, Denver Mayor Mike Johnston has put great emphasis on addressing the city’s rising homeless population, declaring the situation a state of emergency less than 24 hours after his inauguration. Now, Johnston faces the task of delivering on that promise before the end of the calendar year.
“This challenge starts with a very simple truth, which is right now, it is very, very difficult to find housing that is affordable in this city,” Johnston said in a town hall meeting for Districts 7 and 10 on Aug. 29. “That’s true for the folks in this room right now. It’s true for every first-year teacher in the city. And if you want to know, that is the single most common variable you find in every city in America that is struggling with homelessness.”
Johnston has held a series of town hall meetings on the subject in different districts of Denver to discuss key points and updates regarding the new homelessness initiative. But, his plan has been met with criticism at almost every stop.
The disapproval began with two sanctioned encampment cleanups. The first took place on Aug. 2, due to a rat infestation that posed “a significant public health risk.” Three weeks later, another camp was swept because of a shooting, which resulted in two deaths and a stray bullet going through a populated building nearby. There were previous reports of gun violence just a month prior in the same area. It was later discovered that the alleged shooter came out of a tent from inside the camp but was not a direct resident. Homeless advocate and community member Jerry Burton appeared at the Aug. 29 town hall meeting to express his frustration with the cleanups.
“Those people were traumatized from a shooting, who never should have been moved due to the fact that they had nothing to do with the shooting that happened there. They were already getting trash service, they were set up, it was clean,” Burton said. “I’m wondering what’s going on because it’s starting to feel like we’re going right back to the Hancock administration where people are getting sent and moved around with absolutely no notice.”
The mayor expressed in his initial plan that the only situations that would result in a sanctioned cleanup would be from public health concerns, public safety concerns and construction interference. Both cleanups fell under that categorization.
Johnston said there are three strategies he is using to create new housing opportunities for the homeless.
“One is getting people directly into apartments that we can lease units that are available around the city. The second is hotels we bought or leased hotels where we can convert those units into immediate housing options where we can get people again, off the streets. And the third option [is] what we call micro-communities.”
These micro-communities are what will make it possible to house 1,000 people by the end of 2023. The goal is to avoid the time and expenditures of building typical high-rise residential buildings. The micro-communities, Johnston estimates, will only take about seven days to build and cost $25,000 for each unit.
“They’re a community that offers wraparound services, offers mental health support, addiction treatment, workforce training, so you’re getting back on your feet, getting stabilized,” Johnston said.
Johnston’s list of 11 sites that could be used for micro-communities drew much criticism from neighbors because multiple sites lie in close proximity to small businesses, residential areas and an elementary school.
“I want to know how you’re going to ensure the safety and security of not only my staff but also my customers because right now I get phone calls and they’re scared,” said Tameran Bethel, co-owner of Old Santa Fe Pottery. “I’m just frustrated, it’s hard to run a business. With just under 35 years, last year was the first year we didn’t make any money. This year is looking poor because nobody wants to come in and feel unsafe.”
Bethel’s shop is on the 2400 block of Santa Fe and Johnston’s proposed community is on the 2300 block. She has had her catalytic converter stolen among numerous other car parts that she attributes to the homeless population surrounding her shop and home.
“Some of our unhoused neighbors are very sick and need help. And I know it’s such a challenge to get them help. I am concerned. And I do think we have a moral obligation,” Bethel said. “We also have an obligation in the solution we have to protect the safety and well-being of the people in the neighborhood. Being comfortable in your neighborhood is critical.”
While some are concerned with the location of these micro-communities, others are concerned with the longevity of these temporary housing solutions.
“You can’t create a model that just consistently houses, temporarily, a thousand people. It has to have on the end of it a place [where] you can live with supportive services for good. So I’m waiting to see how that unfolds,” said Randle Loeb, a homeless advocate, on Bucket List Community Cafe’s September Podcast.
Johnston does have a plan for some of those residents after the micro-communities are gone, which includes permanent housing solutions. On Sept. 28, the Denver Housing Authority, or DHA, completed its acquisition of a Best Western Hotel on Quebec Street. The hotel’s primary function will be to fill its 194 rooms with low-income and homeless applicants in a permanent capacity.
“This acquisition is the first key piece of that puzzle and puts us on a solid path to achieving our goal, connecting our unhoused neighbors to housing and low-barrier shelter, and improving quality of life in neighborhoods across our city,” Johnston said in July.
The most recent purchase and conversion of the Best Western is in addition to a 94-room hotel that was purchased by the DHA back in January for the same purpose. The DHA will continue to survey and select locations to create permanent housing solutions.
In order to help people feel safe and clean up our neighborhoods, the city and its residents must first adopt the temporary infrastructure and wraparound services that micro-communities provide, while more permanent solutions continue to develop.
“To live is to build a ship and the harbor at the same time. And to finish the harbor long after the ship is gone,” says Johnston. “We also know every one of us has to dock that ship in the harbor at the end of the night. But we want to be a city both full of great ships, and also a city that is fundamentally a harbor now as we offer up our neighborhoods.”