Homelessness and Denver
Homelessness and District 10
Homelessness is the top concern of District 10 residents
Homelessness is the top concern of the people who contact my office. Or, to be more specific, the top concern is unsanctioned encampments near where people live. It also happens to be about 9 of every 10 calls to the Mayor's office and is a significant percentage of calls to 311. About 450 calls to 311 each week are about unsanctioned encampments.
The Mayor's office has asked us to direct people to Pocketgov. Pocketgov interfaces with 311, and Pocketgov has recently added an encampment category. Pocketgov asks for information about the encampment, including its size, whether children or needles are present, whether an emergency is underway, etc. It also allows anyone to submit photos.
Homelessness has two truisms
Generally all of the outreach we receive falls into two truisms.
The closer people are to experiencing homelessness, the more sympathetic they are to people experiencing homelessness.
In general, if someone could see themselves homeless in a matter of days or weeks, they tend to contact us less to ask for a cleanup/sweep of an unsanctioned encampment.
As an example, the millennials in Capitol Hill who are struggling to pay rent each month - or are still housed only because of the eviction moratoriums - tend to be more sympathetic to people experiencing homelessness because they see themselves potentially joining our unhoused neighbors in a matter of just a couple weeks. One missed rent payment or one sick day that reduces their paycheck could be the difference between being housed and unhoused.
The closer people experiencing homelessness are to people, the less sympathetic they are to people experiencing homelessness.
When an unsanctioned encampment appears near someone's house, we receive lots of outreach - at least until that encampment moves. After it moves, people typically stop all outreach, even if the encampment only moved 1 block away.
Denver is the only city with public camping
This simply isn't accurate. Public camping in Denver seems to be getting worse. People who have lived here 1 year, 10 years, and 50 years all report that they've never seen this level of unsanctioned camping in our city.
That said, Denver is not alone. Unsanctioned camping is growing in liberal states like California and conservative states like Texas. It's growing in big cities and small towns. I grew up in rural Texas, where my mom still lives, and she reports that people are living in tents all over their small town.
The COVID pandemic is destroying lives and livelihoods of people all over the world. The economic effects of COVID, too, have pushed people out of their homes and onto the street. Even with the eviction moratoriums at the national, state, and local levels, Denver still processed evictions in 2020 about 50% the number processed in 2019.
This housing crisis is a national problem that needs federal help at the local level. The solution isn’t just about clearing unsanctioned encampments. While we’ve been more successful at hacking away at the housing affordability crisis in recent years, there have been unsuccessful attempts because some solutions aren’t popular. As Councilman Hinds often says, “It’s really hard to condense years of failed housing policy into a six-second soundbite.”
Homelessness and housing policy
There are strong links between housing affordability and homelessness. For example, “Communities where people spend more than 32 percent of their income on rent can expect a more rapid increase in homelessness, according to new Zillow-sponsored research on the size and root causes of the nation’s homelessness challenge.”
100,000 in Denver area are housing cost burdened. Denver – and Colorado -- is also in the middle of a housing shortage. This housing crisis, which began well before the impacts of the recent pandemic, has made the homelessness situation worse. Some estimate it will take three years or more to meet demand. Pre-pandemic contributors to our current housing crisis:
- Between 2012-2018 rent went up 62%
- Between 2012-2018 home values have gone up 73%
- Between 2012-2018 income has gone up only 35%
Land-use and income policies have largely contributed to where we find ourselves today. Public support for solutions can be very contentious. Often times it is really hard to communicate in a way that makes it easy for the very busy public to digest the complex, bigger picture. Yet, it is that complex situation that lead us to an environment like the one we are experiencing in Denver today. Sometimes it is really easy to separate the public from their local government, but public support or opposition to solutions genuinely, strongly influences the direction our city takes.
Most municipalities, including Denver, are doing all they can with the resources they have to address the bigger issue of homelessness and housing insecurity. Local resources often just aren’t enough. There is a high cost to clearing encampments and it doesn’t help solve the overall bigger issue of homelessness and housing insecurity. Many professionals believe to genuinely curb homelessness, we need both housing and wrap around services. This is an 8 minute documentary from Austin that mirrors many of the challenges that Denver faces – though their approach is slightly different. The video in many respects gets at the heart of everyday reality for the housed and unhoused living in close proximity.
What is Denver doing about homelessness?
Denver has created a new department called the Department of Housing Stability. Its nickname - after all, many Denver agencies have one - is HOST. HOST is the agency charged with identifying ways to keep people in their homes who might be at risk of losing their home. It's also the agency charged with identifying ways to get people back into homes who are homeless.
According to HOST, we estimate we will have enough funds to help obtain or preserve up to 6000 affordable homes in the next 5 years within these three focus areas: affordable home ownership; affordable rental; and homelessness resolution.
In addition to our newly established local funding source, Denver’s HOST will be competing for some of the $2 trillion housing and homelessness dollars in the American Rescue Plan for housing vouchers and other funds to help our homeless neighbors. And, our Congressional delegation is keeping the issue front and center of their agendas. For example, as noted above, Congresswoman Diana DeGette has worked with Mayor Michael Hancock to secure funds for a hotel which will be first used as shelter and then as transitional housing.
A few of the other 2021 Goals that HOST is meeting now:
- Keep 2000 people in their current homes (rental assistance, etc)
- Serve 15,000 people with services for homelessness resolution
- Serve 4000 people with housing opportunity services (down payment assistance, buyer counseling)
- Rebuild our shelter system in the three-year shelter expansion plan
- 24/7 shelter access
- This month Denver opened a 46-bed crisis-stabilization center for people experiencing behavioral-health emergencies, including our unhoused neighbors
- Later this spring/early summer, opening a shelter that will be capable of serving up to 600 people per night
- Add three or more Safe Outdoor Space sites
- Policies to increase affordability and accessibility for housing: housing incentive program; missing middle housing types; eviction prevention help
- Expanding outreach, engagement and enforcement efforts to better connect people to shelter, housing, treatment and other services, and to protect against the public health and safety hazards caused by large unsanctioned encampments
- 46-Bed Solutions Center opened in June 2021
What is Councilman Hinds doing about homelessness and encampments?
Using his bully pulpit and his wide network in the community, CM Hinds has been able to help providers navigate Denver resources and form partnerships to house people and offer needed services. From the time he sought public office, he has been a strong advocate for local government actions to increase affordability. He became well versed on Denver’s housing crisis that had taken root and continued to grow many years prior to taking office. He performs his legislative duties always with an eye toward expanding Denver citizens’ ability to access an affordable, safe, and healthy place to live. Here are just a few examples:
- Hosting town halls, having on-site visits with housed and with unhoused neighbors, attending sweeps, visiting safe outdoor spaces, studying national best practices – to learn and to observe what solutions are working and where we can do better
- Funding for landlords to keep people in their homes
- Partnering to open the first Safe Outdoor Spaces
- When possible, partnering with community service providers
- Loosening outdated restrictions on who is allowed to live together
- Funding for new housing developments for those with lower area median incomes
- Updating zoning rules and regulations to accommodate more housing options
- Re-zonings for development of new housing requiring more affordability
- Funding for services that support our police, like the early intervention teams and STAR program, so they can concentrate on hard crime while support is offered to those suffering from homelessness
- Rules and regulations that protect and bolster wages at the lower end. After all, increasing income is as useful as decreasing expenses when it comes to ensuring people can afford to live in our city
- Job training and retention programs
What can the public do about homelessness?
We’ve heard from a lot of you that you would like to help. Here are some options.
- The City’s non-profit partners often have volunteer opportunities and ask for supportive actions for their projects. Some of our partners in ending homelessness need dollars to feed and house folks, while others advocate for you to show up and testify at Council in favor of new housing developments or policies that keep people in homes and off the streets. Here are a couple of our non-profit partners you might want to follow:
- Colorado Village Collaborative
- Colorado Coalition for the Homeless
- Saint Francis Center
- Denver Rescue Mission
- Urban Peak
- ... and, if you want more options, Denver has a resource line to hear how you want to contribute and match you with volunteer opportunities. Please visit the official Denver volunteer page.
- Do a deep dive into what IS happening now. Understanding the work City employees and your elected leaders are doing on this issue - and having discussions with your community about that work – is more helpful than you might imagine. Gaining support for programs, easing fears and even alerting us to policies or programs that aren’t already in the City’s tool chest are important. A first step is to learn all about HOST – Denver’s housing stability department that was created by Mayor Hancock in 2019. You can review HOST’s 2021 action plan. HOST also has a 5 year strategic plan.
- Testify. CM Hinds frequently says our democracy is stronger when we all participate. This is an unprecedented time and it is important for the Council body and for the Mayor’s office to hear from you. Sharing your thoughts about your experiences and your ideas regarding solutions is welcomed during these meetings – which are televised, so you can also hear what others are saying on the issue. Denver City Council usually meets on Monday evenings and starts with a public comment period. Often times issues related to homelessness are heard in our various Committees that occur during the week. Those Committees also often host public comment periods. You can participate in person or remotely using Zoom. Learn more about what’s on our weekly agendas and when you can testify here.
Unwanted camping on private property
Camping on your private property is different than camping on public right-of-way. If unwanted camping is occurring on your private property, you can sign a no-trespass agreement with the Denver Police Department (DPD). They will ask that you post no trespass signs on your property. This agreement allows DPD to enforce on your private property without you having to report it. If you want to learn more, you are welcome to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also call the Community Resource Officers in your police substation directly.
I still want to know more!
Councilman Hinds is always interested in hearing from constituents. If you've reviewed all of this information and still want to learn more, please feel free to reach out. We know that different people feel comfortable communicating in different ways, so we have a large variety of ways to communicate.
We'd be happy to hear from you via phone, email, website (you're already here!), email, social media, our weekly livestreams (Fridays at 1:30pm), weekly office hours reserved specifically for constituents, and even a web contact page. All of them can be found on the contact link above or by clicking here to access the contact page.