Based on the number of questions my office gets about the issue, homelessness is by far the most important topic to District 10. To better address constituent concerns, my office will be publishing a comprehensive homelessness update each month. Get it right away by signing up here >>
Everyone living in our district deserves to be treated humanely and to feel safe. As your elected representative, I hope we share these values of shared humanity. If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that we all experience hardship. And we all need the support of a community to get us through difficult times.
The Paradox of Homelessness in District 10
I’ve quickly learned that many District 10 residents who want to see an end to homelessness also don’t want to see their neighborhood become more dense or change in zoning. Unfortunately, that’s just not possible. Density, zoning, and housing are all inextricably linked to homelessness. Something has to give.
I’ve also found that the closer folks are to experiencing homelessness themselves, the more empathy they have for unhoused people. But the closer unhoused people physically get to housed neighbors, the less sympathetic people become. Sweeping encampments doesn’t solve the root cause of why people live on the street. We have to get creative.
Proposed SOS Sites in Uptown and Capitol Hill
There have been a lot of announcements regarding SOS sites in the last couple weeks. While I’m still coordinating between all the different parties, here is my best understanding of the situation right now. I’ll keep you updated as I learn more.
Two churches have proposed SOS sites on their properties. One proposed site is at First Baptist Church at 14th and Grant. The other is at Denver Community Church at 16th and Pearl. (A third announcement regarding a city-sponsored RFP for Safe Outdoor Spaces was also made last week, and I will cover that below.) I spent much of last week trying to figure out what, if any, coordination is going on between the two churches and what District 10 residents can expect.
Based on my conversations with First Baptist, they aren’t coordinating with Denver Community Church on things like a Good Neighbor Agreement. However, it does appear that both sites are interested in engaging the surrounding community. Colorado Interfaith Alliance has launched a website for community engagement and announced two virtual town halls. I hope you’ll get involved with this existing planning effort. I certainly will! Public meetings will happen next week. Find information here >>
What has Colorado Interfaith Alliance proposed?
The envisioned SOS sites are quite different from the encampments we’ve all seen. The SOS sites aim to better serve both housed and unhoused people.
Colorado Interfaith Alliance has proposed an SOS plan. The plan describes spaces staffed 24-7; address safety and hygiene concerns; and have fenced-in boundaries to respect housed neighbors.
Staff would enforce good neighbor guidelines for behavior and help SOS residents find more permanent housing solutions. I’m still working to understand how the two proposed sites will, or won’t, work together. Currently, the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado has proposed these existing guidelines, including rules for behavior, for the Denver Community Church site. You can view and comment on them here >>
Why are the proposed sites only in Capitol Hill and Uptown?
I firmly believe we all should share the responsibility, not just the residents of District 10. I’ll certainly push for more districts to also host SOS sites, but for now, these are the only two private property owners who have offered space. The city’s RFP process (more on that in a moment) could also result in additional sites in other parts of Denver, and I will certainly encourage locations outside District 10 to consider following our lead.
After all, someone has to be the leader. Someone must demonstrate the success – or failure – of safe open spaces in Denver. I believe these sites, this organization, and these faith-based hosts will recognize that they are the role models for this solution. And if they aren’t a good role model, these sites – and all others in Denver – will be removed.
Again, this isn’t an ideal solution for anyone. Housing with wraparound services is our end goal, not people living outdoors. I urge you to get involved with planning for these SOS sites. I’ll be at the virtual town halls, and I hope to see you there. Learn more here >>
Why are we considering Safe Outdoor Spaces at all?
Safe Outdoor Space (SOS) sites are a step forward in providing more housing options and wraparound services. They are a temporary solution to a long-term problem.
SOS sites provide predictability and stability for both housed and unhoused neighbors. Unauthorized, sprawling encampments would be redirected to the defined boundaries of an SOS. Social services, like mental healthcare, can be provided to help people get their basic needs met and reintegrate into traditional society.
Aren’t there indoor shelters for people to go to?
Yes. But, shelter space is limited and doesn’t serve everyone. COVID has further limited shelter availability. People who want to stay with their loved ones, two- or four-legged, have limited options since shelters don’t serve couples or people with pets. Transgender people are at increased risk of violence in shelters. Many shelters aren’t wheelchair-accessible, as I’ve experienced first-hand.
These limitations mean unhoused people resort to living outside. The proposed SOS sites have solutions for each of these limitations. Just one SOS location will double the available space for people who use wheelchairs for mobility for Denver’s entire shelter offering, and people with disabilities are disproportionately highly represented in our unhoused community.
Between the camping ban and zoning codes, is this legal?
I’m not an attorney. I’ve reached out to multiple groups within the city for further clarification, and I will update you as I learn more. But my basic understanding of the camping ban is that it restricts camping in public right-of-ways. The proposed SOS sites do not violate the camping ban because they are all on private property, out of the public right-of-way.
Both of these proposed sites are on private property. That means the city’s influence is more limited, and it also means there’s no Council vote required. Per the city’s Zoning Administrator, there won’t be a formal requirement for informational notice or a community information meeting for this temporary, COVID-related use; just the requirement for a zoning permit. The Zoning Administrator will be issuing more details regarding that permit by early next week. You can find it here >>
Are SOS locations a long-term solution?
Absolutely not. But building housing takes years, and people are on the streets today. SOS sites are not the end goal. Living outdoors is not ideal for anyone in District 10. People experiencing homelessness want to be in their own homes, and housed neighbors have valid concerns about the safety and hygiene of encampments.
In initial conversations, First Baptist Church reports that it expects its site to have a life of approximately 6 months. Either way, the rules which allow this site to exist expires within a few days after the expiration of Denver’s emergency declaration order.
The City’s RFP for Safe Outdoor Spaces
I still have more to learn about the city’s new SOS RFP. I’ll make sure to share my findings with you all. Our housing crisis extends well beyond District 10. While I am proud that we are being a leader in creative housing solutions, we expect other areas in the city to share in the responsibility to address our housing crisis.
Emergency Overflow Shelter in Golden Triangle
To address some of the limitations of the permanent shelter system, the city has opened an emergency shelter for women and transgender individuals in Golden Triangle. The 24-hour shelter is located at 1370 Elati Street.
Individuals seeking shelter should first go to Samaritan House, 2301 Lawrence St., at 4:30 p.m.. Referrals are made to empty shelter beds at Samaritan House or an overflow shelter. Transportation is provided to overflow shelters. Learn more here >>
MDHI’s First State of Homelessness Report
If you’d like to learn more about homelessness regionally, the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative (MDHI) released its State of Homelessness report earlier this fall.
This complements the data collected during January’s Point In Time survey. The January survey counted more than 4,000 individuals experiencing homelessness in a certain night; this data, however, has its limitations. The Point in Time survey doesn’t count people who are couch-surfing, living in cars, or who aren’t engaging with the shelter system. The survey also doesn’t ask people whether they identify as having a disability.
Advocates in Denver have reported much higher numbers of homelessness. Denver Homeless Out Loud estimates upwards of 20,000 people are experiencing homelessness in our city. The most accurate number is probably somewhere in the middle. No matter what the true number is, the data underlines the need for more investment in homelessness solutions.
The Future of Initiative 2B Funds
Denverites passed Initiative 2B last week to increase funding for addressing homelessness. Later this month, Denver’s Department of Housing Stability (HOST) will issue an addendum to its draft 2021 Action Plan. This addendum will explain how HOST will invest 2B funds next year. There will be a public comment period to provide direct input for how these funds will be used.
City Council will also appoint five strategic advisors to a HOST governing body that will oversee the funds. The mayor will appoint an additional six. These strategic advisors will be experts in affordable housing and homelessness. Three of the positions must be filled by folks who have directly experienced homelessness or housing insecurity.
Initiative 2B expects to raise $40 million annually. This is a significant increase from Denver’s current annual funding. Keep in mind that 2021 funds raised will be less than that; due to the pandemic, sales tax revenue is significantly down.
Regardless, I’m thrilled we all agreed that we need to invest more in addressing homelessness. As the MDHI report found, it’s clearly an issue that’s not going away.