Homelessness rising sharply in metro Denver as Mike Johnston’s plans take shape
New mayor will continue ‘sweeps’ of encampments but promises to prioritize housing solutions
Denver police and other municipal workers perform a “sweep” of an encampment of unhoused people in the Capitol Hill neighborhood on March 7, 2023. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)
Data released this week shows homelessness in the Denver metro area rose sharply in 2022, as new Denver Mayor Mike Johnston begins to roll out an ambitious set of plans to provide housing to the city’s unsheltered population.
The Metro Denver Homeless Initiative’s annual “point in time” count found 9,065 people living outdoors and in shelters in seven Denver-area counties on a single night in January of this year. That’s a 32% increase from a year earlier.
A majority of those unhoused people were counted within Denver city limits, including 4,395 people in shelters and transitional housing, and 1,423 who were unsheltered.
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Johnston, who was sworn in last week to succeed the term-limited Michael Hancock, has promised to end homelessness in Denver by the end of his first term in office. In one of his first actions as mayor, he issued an emergency declaration that he said will help the city better coordinate resources through its emergency operations center.
“We have more than 50 city employees who’ve been activated to work down there,” Johnston said at a press conference Tuesday. “(There are) very productive conversations happening across all agencies and departments to figure out how we can take on these challenges in a coordinated way. They’ll be working directly on how to put together the plan that we need to bring folks into housing.”
Johnston, who has set a near-term goal of housing 1,000 people by the end of 2023, identified four different categories of housing his administration will pursue to achieve that goal: leases of existing rental units; hotel conversions; “microcommunities” like tiny home villages; and conversions of larger commercial buildings into shelters.
This week’s point-in-time data showed large numbers of families experiencing homelessness — more than 2,100 across the metro area — as well as a sharp rise in people experiencing homelessness for the first time. Jamie Rife, executive director of the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative, said the increases show the region “beginning to feel the full economic fallout of the COVID-19 era.”
“With COVID-19 relief funds for the prevention of homelessness coming to an end, as well as many other COVID-era protections, we’ve seen a sharp increase in the number of eviction filings as more households struggle to pay rent,” Rife said. “This, paired with inflation and the increased cost of housing, is resulting in many people falling into homelessness and many being unable to obtain housing.”
Town halls across Denver
Since the launch of his mayoral campaign last year, Johnston has singled out microcommunities as a key part of his plan to address homelessness.
Tiny homes or “safe outdoor spaces” like those administered by the Colorado Village Collaborative, advocates say, allow unhoused people who are resistant to shelters and other forms of congregate housing to have their own private spaces while being connected to the services they need.
Johnston on Tuesday held the first in a series of town halls he plans to offer in each of Denver’s 11 City Council districts, as he works to build support for his plan, hear feedback from residents and identify potential microcommunity locations.
“To site those 1,000 units, we would need somewhere between 20 to 40 locations,” Johnston said. “We need to get those urgently, so we can get them sited, we can get them permitted, we can get them fire-investigated.”
“The idea is to have all of these conversations now, concurrently, so that we can, in three or four months, actually move 1,000 people within three or four weeks, which has never been done before,” he added.
But Tuesday’s town hall, held at the Savoy Denver in District 9 with newly elected council member Darrell Watson, offered a preview of the pushback Johnston could receive as he brings his pitch to neighborhoods across the city.
Few attendees who spoke at the meeting were interested in hearing more about Johnston’s housing-focused approach. Several identified themselves as members of Citizens for a Safe and Clean Denver, a conservative group that advocates for a more punitive approach to homelessness in the city, including more policing, incarceration and aggressive enforcement of the city’s camping ban.
“Are you going to or are you not going to enforce the camping ban?” one man interrupted to ask Johnston. “There’s been a lot of talk about that today, and I think that’s what brought a lot of people, certainly myself, to this meeting.”
Referring to “some misunderstanding about this question,” Johnston repeatedly clarified during the town hall that his administration will continue “sweeps” in some cases.
“Our priority is really working with people to move them into housing,” Johnston said. “We will still continue, where there are either public health and safety risks around current encampments, or where there are right-of-way infringements, or there are private property infringements — we will continue to be involved in cleaning up or potentially moving those sites that have those criteria.”
Citizens for a Safe and Clean Denver rejects the so-called “housing first” approach endorsed by many homeless advocacy groups, with which Johnston’s plan shares many elements.
“Shelter first. Treatment first. Housing earned,” the group’s website says.
Veronica Waters, a Safe and Clean Denver member, predicted that Johnston’s approach would cause Denver’s homeless population to increase by drawing people from other cities and states.
“They’re coming here to use drugs, and to take advantage of our system, as well as our leniency with law enforcement,” Waters said. “We are going to attract people from the whole entire Rocky Mountain region to come here and get our goodies.”
Patricia Watson, a real estate developer, told Johnston that around 200 unhoused people are camping within a block of a building she owns in Five Points.
“Immediately what these people need, like today or tomorrow, not three or five or seven months from now — is something better than a makeshift tent,” Watson said. “The police are overwhelmed, it’s destroying businesses, it’s making children unsafe walking to school. It’s not something that can afford to wait until someone feels like going to treatment, feels like going to a shelter.”
Johnston assured town hall attendees that the city will crack down on serious law-breaking within encampments. He noted that surveys show that 80% of the area’s unhoused population are local residents, not people traveling from elsewhere.
“To the extent that people are attracted to the the worst versions of what we have in the city right now — the open-air drug markets and human prostitution markets — those are things we’re going to shut down,” Johnston said.
“What we know is true is this neighborhood has borne the overwhelming burden of this issue, disproportionate to any other neighborhood in the city,” said Johnston of Five Points, where many unhoused people can stay in close proximity to shelters and other services located along Broadway north of downtown.
That will change if microcommunities and services for unhoused people are better distributed throughout Denver, he said.
“The major idea to change this is to decentralize those services, because when we have 10 or 15 sites around the city, and each of those sites have showers, have bathrooms, have kitchens, have mental health support, have wraparound services, you don’t have to come down to Arapahoe Square every day.”
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