‘I want to see the plan’: Denver residents press city officials over inaction on homelessness

Community meeting legally required as part of 2019 settlement and is supposed to occur 4 times a year. Only 3 have occurred since March 2019.

Around 70 people gathered on March 31, 2020, at the outdoor Greek Theatre in Denver’s Civic Center Park to discuss issues and concerns related to how city officials are addressing the growing affordable housing and homelessness crisis in the city. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

“Why does there seem to be more resources in our county jails or state prisons than there are out here?”

“We can’t afford to do laundry for $7 a load. What can you do to help us with that?”

“Why are officers taking people’s propane tanks away while they’re sleeping, saying that’s a public safety hazard while forcing them to choose between freezing to death or burning down their tents?”

“Where’s the plan? I don’t want to talk about a plan. I want to see the plan.”

These were a few of the questions that community members launched at Denver city housing officials during a public meeting that drew around 70 people on Wednesday at the outdoor Greek Theatre in Denver’s Civic Center Park. 

The goal of the two-hour meeting was to solicit feedback about current city programs for the homeless; hear issues and concerns about how officials are addressing the growing affordable housing and homelessness crisis; and discuss ideas for potential solutions. The community meeting is legally required as part of a 2019 settlement against the city and is supposed to occur four times per year. So far, only three meetings have occurred. 

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During Wednesday’s meeting, many unhoused residents detailed the inhumane treatment they’ve experienced at homeless shelters and during encampment clearings, commonly called homeless sweeps. Others talked about how, even with stable employment, they can’t afford rent or food or laundry services and that they’ve been on affordable housing waitlists for years. One man discussed how difficult it is to find housing with a criminal record. Another talked about how convoluted the process is to get on a waitlist for one of the city’s new safe outdoor spaces.

Sophie Elias, 40, packs up her belongings on Oct. 6, 2020, at the corner of 14th Avenue and Logan Street in downtown Denver during an encampment clearing. Elias was released from prison in April 2020 and has had difficulty finding employment because of her criminal record. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

“It’s not that we can’t be heard, it’s that things aren’t getting done,” said 40-year-old Sophie Elias, who said she’s been without stable housing on and off since she was 12. ”It hurts me to see that homelessness hasn’t changed except that you’ve got a few camps here, and you’re putting them in a Ramada.”

City officials skirted many of the questions and concerns brought up and instead highlighted some of the city’s recent successes, including increasing shelter capacity by 60%; providing nearly 1,000 hotel or motel rooms for people during the pandemic; reserving 4,600 COVID-19 vaccines solely for people experiencing homelessness; assisted over 1,800 households through the city’s various housing programs; and building 254 more affordable housing units that will be complete in the next 21 months. Evan Dyer, who is typically present during homeless sweeps as a representative from Mayor Michael Hancock’s office, was present during the community meeting but remained silent.

“I know those are important things and like the speakers have said, there’s more to do. There’s more support and more to help. So we’ll keep working on that,” said Britta Fisher, Denver’s chief housing officer.

Community members share concerns, potential solutions

A 41-year-old woman named Sarah, who asked that her last name not be used, said that she became homeless in 2015 after experiencing domestic violence. She said she was assigned a caseworker through the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless in September, but has only met with them once.

“As far as the city and everything else, they are doing nothing to help. They are harassing, they are humiliating, they are doing everything to take away our right to exist, literally,” she said. “There’s no bathrooms. There’s no showers. There’s nothing. Ninety percent of the organizations that helped us, once COVID started, they stopped.”

A row of newly placed tents line the corner of 14th Avenue and Logan Street in Denver after a nearby homeless encampment was removed on Oct. 6, 2020. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

She said she and others do their best to keep their areas clean, but they don’t have access to trash services. “It’s a $75 special pick up fee. Otherwise, they refuse to pick it up,” she said. “It is not a sanitation problem like they are saying, because they refuse to do it. Seventy five dollars that we have to pay once a week? Pick up the goddamn trash.”

A local mutual aid group, called the Headwater Protectors, provides trash and water services to homeless camps throughout Denver. The group of volunteers meets every Sunday at 10 a.m. at Benedict Fountain Park.

Some other solutions put forth during the meeting included creating an apprenticeship program through the city’s shelter system so people can get job training while they are staying at a shelter. Another woman, who is currently staying in a hotel room provided by the city, stressed the need for more case managers to better support people once they find housing. Another speaker talked about how much money the city could save by not conducting homeless sweeps and instead use those funds to provide more permanent housing solutions.

The sweeps have continued throughout the pandemic despite guidance from the CDC and another pending class-action lawsuit against the city.

David Hagen, 38, who is a part of the group From Allies to Abolitionists, suggested using the nearby RTD bus station as a hub for people experiencing homelessness.

“People can go in there right now and set up camp. People could even set up right here if you provided toilets and trash cans,” Hagen said, pointing to the Greek Theatre where the meeting was held. “I guarantee this place will be clean. People want to take care of their space. But we’re not allowing them to do so.”

Services provided ‘just a drop in the bucket’ compared to the need

Ana Cornelius, a member of the advocacy group Denver Homeless Out Loud, said during the meeting that while she appreciates the city has made more shelter beds available for people experiencing homelessness during the pandemic, it’s still just “a drop in the bucket.”

The last official city point-in-time survey — which is considered a significant undercount because it only counts the number of people experiencing homelessness on a single night — found that 6,104 people were homeless in January 2020.

A more comprehensive analysis by the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative found that 31,207 individuals had experienced homelessness in the metro area between July 1, 2019, and June 30, 2020. Denver officials recently said the city’s shelter system can accommodate approximately 2,200 people per night in shelters or hotel and motel rooms. Denver’s two safe outdoor spaces can host up to 70 people.

Cornelius added that she’s also glad there are 254 more affordable housing units coming down the pipeline. “But how many more people are we going to have on the streets in 21 months when we are looking at 31,000 unique individuals in the (Homeless Management Information System) system?” she added.

A sanctioned camping site for people experiencing homelessness, also referred to as a safe outdoor space, located in the parking lot of the Denver Community Church in the city’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. (Photo provided by the Colorado Village Collaborative)

She wants to see the city take meaningful action to address the lack of trash services, public bathrooms and hand washing stations across the city and stop the homeless sweeps that further traumatize people and create the need for more long-term supportive services for people who find themselves trapped in the cycle of homelessness and poverty. 

“I don’t want to talk about a plan, I want to see the plan,” Cornelius said, adding that the concerns being raised are the same ones voiced by unhoused residents, business owners and advocates during previous meetings in 2019 and 2020.

Fisher, with the city’s Department of Housing Stability, or HOST, reiterated that city officials are continuing to provide more and more services, but recognized that they aren’t necessarily the services that have been requested.

“Certainly, I have heard the concerns, and there are things that we have done, and understand that they’re not always exactly what you’ve asked for,” said Fisher, in a slow, methodical voice. “(But) by opening shelters 24/7, there’s now access to more bathrooms, more services, more meals and more beds. I understand that’s not where everyone wants to go.” 

Fisher ended by saying that “our partners around the city departments are opening up more and more public restrooms.” 

Heather Grady, a spokesperson for HOST, said in an email on Thursday that the city has plans to open two more public restrooms this summer, one near the 16th Street Mall and another at Sonny Lawson Park.

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