Homelessness a top priority for new Denver mayor with no quick fix

For years, candidates for mayor in Denver and in other large cities have vowed to end scenes of tents and tarps lining sidewalks and parks, but Mayor Michael Hancock warns that voters should be wary of anyone who claims they can fix the problem in a set amount of time.

Hancock, who has dealt with persistent criticism over his handling of homelessness, said he wishes he had understood the issue’s complexity when he was first elected as mayor in 2011.

“We have not been sitting around for 10, 11 years twiddling our thumbs and playing politics with the lives of human beings on our streets. These are human beings,” Hancock said. “And we have been working diligently to try to find the secret sauce for each individual so we can not only house them but stabilize them.”

The number of people experiencing homelessness in the city has grown to at least 4,794, more than 44% compared to five years earlier, according to the metro Denver Point-In-Time count in 2022. The Denver metro ranks among the top 10 cities and counties in the country with the most homeless people. It’s an issue voters have repeatedly pointed to in surveys as one of Denver’s most pressing as 17 candidates vie to replace Hancock.

“There’s no silver bullet for homelessness,” said Jamie Rife, executive director of the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative. “It’s something that took us decades to get here. It’s going to take us a while to get out of.”

During Hancock’s tenure, the city has significantly increased its spending on homelessness and affordable housing, with $253 million of the 2023 general fund budget allocated for housing and homelessness. Denver created the Department of Housing Stability, the Affordable Housing Fund and programs for permanent supportive housing and outreach. It now owns or leases three shelters, has purchased motels and hotels for transitional housing, operates sanctioned outdoor camping spots and works with nonprofits to provide services. Voters also approved a .25% homelessness sales tax increase in 2020. And the city saw success with its Social Impact Bond Initiative, working with private investors to provide housing and services.

Hancock, however, has faced pushback for how long it’s taken to implement some of these programs and for enforcement of the city’s camping ban — conducting “sweeps” to break up outdoor homeless encampments. His administration cites public safety as the reason for the sweeps, but homeless advocates point to evidence that sweeps just move people around and don’t help reduce homelessness or get people closer to services or housing.

So what can Denver’s next mayor do about it?

The Denver Post spoke to political leaders and homeless service providers and reviewed programs in Portland, Oregon; Austin, Texas; Seattle; Houston; and New York City to find out what has worked and what hasn’t in places facing similar problems as Denver.

Nonprofit and political leaders interviewed for this story identified programs that have worked in their cities or how data has shown to be effective. The majority agreed that gaps remain in affordable housing options, permanent supportive housing and transitional housing. Some of that is attributed to skyrocketing costs and too little inventory, difficulties with land use and development and residents’ opposition to projects or shelters close to their homes. They cited systemic failures made worse by the pandemic as the cause for the increase in numbers.

Another factor cited regularly is the lack of funding for behavioral and mental health systems. While the misconception exists that people fall into homelessness because of addiction, data show that’s generally not the case. People tend to fall into homelessness because of economic reasons or some kind of trauma and then may end up battling substance use disorders. Homelessness makes the situation worse.

What Denverites want

In a public opinion survey commissioned by Denver business leaders, 96% of respondents referred to homelessness as a major problem, with nearly half of them calling it a crisis. Thirty-two percent of responders graded Denver with an “F” on its efforts to reduce homelessness.

“Homelessness really jumps to the top of what voters are bothered by, what directly negatively impacts their lives,” Republican pollster Brent Buchanan said of the survey results.

Residents have felt unsafe with the increasing number of unsheltered people dealing with addiction or mental health issues outside their homes, and businesses have lost out on opportunities because of it, according to Lisa Pope, president of the Upper Downtown Neighborhood Association. The large number of encampments in the area has also affected tourism, she added.

But her organization is advocating for compassionate solutions because “no one should be left on the street to try to survive. I see people in negative-three-degree temperatures with snow and they barely have a blanket,” she said.

Pope credited the Hancock-led Downtown Denver Action Team, which deploys outreach workers to offer resources to those living outside, particularly near the Denver Convention Center, as making a difference.

The majority of voters who responded to the business survey in February recognized, like Rife and Hancock noted, that there isn’t an easy solution, and most of the respondents sided with Hancock on the sweeps.

“I think there is increasing awareness that because it involves mental health, because it involves substance abuse, there is no 18-month fix for this problem,” Democratic pollster Brad Chism said. “Voters were clear that doing the same thing is not acceptable. I look at sweeps as the harshest thing we tested and it still got 57% support.”

Lessons from Texas

The city of Houston has been lauded across the country for its success in reducing homelessness by 63% since 2011, taking a housing-first approach. The city has helped nearly 26,000 people get into their own homes since 2012, with an about 89% success rate, according to the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County.

Houston officials say much of that success stems from getting various agencies, local governments and even private partners such as landlords to work together, rather than in silos.

The other essential element: collecting quality data to base decisions upon, which the Denver Metro Homeless Initiative says it has been working toward. Part of the reason there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to homelessness is because not everyone is experiencing the same thing — there’s chronic or long-term homelessness in which people may need permanent supportive housing and short-term where people may just need emergency or transitional housing. There are also people who need help with crisis or emergency services who may be at the cusp of homelessness so that they are able to prevent it.

Meanwhile, much of Austin’s progress on reducing homelessness — the city has seen a 10.7% increase in people exiting homelessness from 2020 to 2021 — is tied to initiatives related to funding and financing, said Matthew Mollica, executive director of Austin’s Ending Community Homelessness Coalition.

In a city of about 964,177 people, $70 million of the city’s general fund goes to housing and homelessness, up significantly from $16 million less than a decade ago. The city is also investing in programs to get people off the streets.

Last November, Austin voters passed a housing bond to build affordable housing units. The city, like Denver, is also converting hotels into housing. And Austin has requirements in place that mandate a certain number of units be set aside within housing developments for people exiting homelessness. On the private front, an initiative of local leaders, politicians and people with lived experience also came together to raise funding and leverage federal money to go toward homelessness.

The Ending Community Homelessness Coalition has also been able to come up with creative solutions because it’s listening directly to those experiencing homelessness, Mollica said.

Denver is getting a lot of things right, according to Mollica, and he should know. Prior to moving to Austin, he worked at the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. Despite its housing struggles, the city is ahead of Austin on supportive housing options, he said.

The state has a big role to play, too, he said.

Texas’ state leaders have moved to criminalize homelessness with “catastrophic consequences,” Mollica said. Locally, a city ordinance does the same thing, giving people tickets, and forcing them to constantly be on the move.

“Those things make it really hard to gain the trust that people are trying to move off the street and to engage with them once they do have a housing resource,” he said.

Mollica also cited the “astronomical” cost of housing and low vacancy rate as issues leaders in Austin (like Denver) will need to address or homelessness will continue to go up.

All the money in the world won’t matter, he said, unless it’s invested in “deeply affordable housing” that gets people into safe places to live with the support they need.

Portland’s surge

Portland Mayor Tim Wheeler said his philosophy on addressing homelessness is “fundamentally aligned” to that of Hancock’s.

During his first mayoral campaign in 2016, Wheeler pledged to end unsheltered homelessness. But he said he has struggled to get other local leaders – much of the homeless response and funding falls to the county – and state leaders onboard with his plans.

Meanwhile, the problem got worse, according to the Oregonian, with tents lining downtown streets. Pedestrian traffic reduced significantly in the area while commercial building vacancies went up. Residents sued the city over their inability to access sidewalks. Businesses complained about the encampments and associated problems outside their doors.

Portland’s homeless population surged, particularly after the pandemic hit, and unsanctioned encampments grew. Wheeler said the city has about 800 unsanctioned camps spread out over 146 square miles.

Now in his second term, Wheeler and the Portland City Council have released new plans for addressing homelessness, including:

  • banning unauthorized camping and establishing sanctioned outdoor campsites
  • speeding up affordable housing projects
  • connecting people who are unhoused to services through hubs and establishing a program within the criminal justice system to help people get rid of old warrants and tickets in exchange for services.

The new governor has also declared a homelessness state of emergency to release funding to address the problem, something Wheeler had been urging.

Wheeler believes he can still end unsanctioned street camping during his time in office.

“I also hear loudly and clearly from my constituents as I’m sure is the case in Denver that people want us to be humane and effective in terms of how we achieve that goal,” he said. “So for me, it’s about connecting people to whatever services they need to get off and stay off the streets.”

Scott Kerman, executive director of nonprofit Blanchet House, said it’s easy for people outside of Portland to blame the city’s so-called liberal policies on causing growing homelessness – a claim Denverites often hear, too – but he said those kinds of perceptions are inaccurate.

Like in Denver, people moved to Portland because of a booming economy and desire to live in a destination location, but as the city grew, they were unable to find stable and affordable housing, and as the pandemic broke, the economy tanked.

“We see a lot of tragedy,” he said. “We see a lot of trauma. But what gives us a sense of hope is as hard as it’s been for everyone in our community, I just see a lot of humanity for the people that we serve,” he said.

New plan in New York City

New York Mayor Eric Adams is taking a different, albeit controversial, approach: directing law enforcement and emergency response teams to involuntarily hospitalize people who are unhoused and mentally ill if they are a danger to themselves or others.

Adams made the announcement after a series of violent crimes that involved people who are homeless. He has also made it a priority to clear encampments. Adams’ office declined an interview request.

Service providers in Denver and other cities are more wary of such proposals but say they are worth discussing if guardrails are involved, but they note that years of underfunding of mental and behavioral health systems across the U.S. has been problematic.

About 71% of people who are homeless are dealing with a mental illness or post-traumatic stress and about 59% with longterm substance use disorders, according to research cited in a 2019 Colorado Coalition for the Homeless report. But critics say Adams’ strategy could be unconstitutional and that data show people need to get into housing and stability before accessing services because they could just end up back on the street after being released.

Advocates for those who are unhoused also say misconceptions still remain that homelessness is often a choice and that people end up homeless because of individual decisions versus systemic problems, or that substance use is a primary driver of people becoming homeless – survey data over the years, including from the Metro Denver Homelessness Initiative, disputes this.

Almost 1 in 120 New Yorkers, or about 70,000 people of the more than 8.4 million people who live there, is unhoused, according to nonprofit The Bowery Mission. While the majority are sleeping in shelters, at least 3,400 are living completely without shelter in subways or on streets.

Adams has said that in addition to the plan for those who are struggling with mental health problems, the city needs more hospital beds, outpatient beds and supportive housing options, according to the New York Times.

New York struggles with soaring rents and lack of housing options, and at the beginning of the pandemic, unhoused individuals were temporarily moved into hotels converted into shelters. The city also used federal money to distribute housing vouchers — though finding housing remained difficult — and the city is working on other initiatives, including 15,000 supportive housing units as well as changing zoning laws, according to City and State New York.

A look at Seattle

The No. 1 factor driving homelessness in Seattle is clear, according to Executive Executive Director of the Downtown Emergency Center Daniel Malone: the private rental market no longer meets the needs for low-income housing. Now, people are competing for fewer subsidized housing options.

“The people who lose out on that competition tend to be people who have these other factors like serious mental illness, substance addiction and so forth,” he said. “And then their conditions worsen over time and they’re on the street, and so they need even more support, and that support is often not forthcoming.”

Seattle is facing underfunding in the behavioral and mental health care systems, with many systems of support depleted and access to services difficult.

“Housing first is the demonstrated evidence-backed intervention that resolves the homelessness of people with these more profound conditions,” he said. “It’s really not the case that everybody on the street needs intensive support and all that kind of stuff. ”

Local elected officials absolutely play a role in this, Malone said. But being able to do it to scale without state and federal support is much more difficult.

In King County, which Seattle is a part of, homelessness went up by 13.8% from 2020 to 2022 and the percent of people in shelter who are unhoused went down by 10%, according to the 2022 Point In Time Count. In 2022, 13,368 unhoused people were counted.

Anne Martens, a spokesperson for the King County Regional Homeless Authority, said some of what has worked in Seattle includes:

  • People with lived experience in homelessness working on staff, boards and community engagement efforts
  • Using federal funding for investments in shelters in motels/hotels and other non-congregate options
  • Implementing federally-funded emergency housing vouchers
  • Unifying funding and policy into one regional homeless authority
  • Focusing on housing first to get people into homes and then work on treatment and other service needs
  • Creating an emergency management framework

Moving forward

Denver’s mayoral candidates have proposed a number of solutions for reducing homelessness, including more strictly enforcing the city’s camping ban and making arrests, supporting involuntary mental health holds and creating more social housing.

Cathy Alderman, a spokesperson for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, said she’s looking for a “solutions-driven, compassionate voice.”

“I have been a little disappointed in the tenor of the conversation that’s been going on, especially in the mayoral race, about more policing of people experiencing homelessness, more enforcement actions against people experiencing homelessness,” she said.

Those types of policies have been tried and proven unproductive and costly, according to Alderman. Instead, she wants to see supportive housing programs that will require upfront investment but will keep people out of jail and emergency rooms in the long term, ultimately saving the city money. Alderman points to an Urban Institute study that analyzed results from Denver’s five-year Social Impact Bond Initiative. The city spent $8.6 million in up-front capital from eight lenders to fund supportive housing and rental assistance. The study found that 86% of 363 people evaluated remained in stable housing after one year and 77% at three years. Participants in the program had fewer contacts with police and spent less time in jail and detox facilities. The city had previously estimated it spent an average of $7.3 million a year in providing social safety net services to 250 people, according to the report.

Those who work with the unhoused point to national approaches such as “Built for Zero.” In the Denver metro, it reduced the veteran population by more than 31% from 2020 to 2022. The movement involves regional collaboration, identifying every veteran who was homeless by name and understanding their individual needs, and helping them get into housing.

Rife, of the Denver Metro Homelessness Initiative, said the new Denver City Council is going to have to be hyperfocused on evidence-based initiatives that have already been proven to work.

“At the end of the day, homelessness ends in a home and we’ve got to be able to create homes,” she said.

Alderman wants to see a statewide strategy that matches funds with state, local and federal dollars to meet certain goals. The state currently has a homelessness playbook, she said, but it doesn’t identify funding or statewide goals.

Gov. Jared Polis’ office declined an interview for this story, but a spokesperson said in a written statement that the governor calls on mayors and cities to “double down on what works and avoid what doesn’t work to reduce homelessness.” The state has budgeted about $200 million on homelessness prevention.

“The state stands ready to assist with policy changes and behavioral health resources to address the addiction and mental health crisis,” Conor Cahill wrote. “The Governor is open to supporting any data-driven plan that cities engage in to reduce homelessness.”

Reporter Joe Rubino contributed to this story.

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