New Director of City Homeless Agency Shifts Focus From Shelters to Housing

Three years after Denver's Road Home was supposed to have ended homelessness — the goal of a decade-long plan launched by former mayor John Hickenlooper in 2005 — the city agency still exists under the Denver Department of Human Services, and there are more than 3,000 people experiencing homelessness in Denver on any given night.

“Yeah, that name was unfortunate,” Chris Conner admits of the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness, which began before he joined Denver's Road Home in 2011 as a program administrator. “But it was a response to a national call from Washington, D.C., and it was only supposed to address the chronically homeless, which many people didn't understand. Then, halfway through, the bottom of the economy fell out with the recession.”

On Monday, August 13, Conner was named the new director of Denver's Road Home. Conner, who worked for five years as an outreach worker with Urban Peak before joining Denver's Road Home, is now faced with redirecting efforts of an agency that has changed courses a few times since the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness ended in 2015. The announcement was mostly a formality: Conner had already been serving as interim director for eleven months since the city agency's previous head, Bennie Milliner, was asked by Mayor Michael Hancock to transition to a position as a community liaison at the Denver Sheriff’s Department.

Milliner had faced criticism as director for not including private providers such as the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless early on in discussions around creating an urban camping ban, as well as for what Hancock called an “administrative snafu” when Denver Road Home donations collected through parking meters were used to fund a sweep of homeless encampments. Much of the criticism came from the mayor's own Commission to End Homelessness, which has also recently been rebooted with Conner's input.

Conner calls other approaches to homelessness, including a well-publicized effort in the past two years to coordinate all housing and homeless efforts under a single agency, the Office of HOPE, well-meaning. (The Office of HOPE seems to have fallen by the wayside following the resignation of its first director, Erik Solivan, and disappearance of the office somewhere under the Office of Economic Development during a “strategic restructuring” in late 2017.)

"The office of HOPE was brought on, I think, for the right reasons: needing to create comprehensive strategy in the context of more ambitious investments in housing,” says Conner. “But Denver's Road Home is not within the housing pillar, so now we're refining our lane and our responsibilities."

Under Denver Human Services, Denver's Road Home coordinates private shelter services in Denver, oversees the city's own emergency shelters, invests city funds in nonprofits assisting the homeless, and oversees shelter diversion programs meant to place vulnerable people into supportive housing.

Conner says Denver's Road Home will home in on helping overnight shelter providers connect guests with opportunities for transitional and supportive housing. In that way, Denver's Road Home is playing a supporting role in the city's new affordable-housing plan, which takes a “housing-first” approach to homelessness.

"We've been looking at what do we need to re-calibrate shelters to be a re-housing system rather than just a bed for a night," says Conner. “When it comes to identifying people to receive affordable housing, the shelter network is going to play a big piece in that. This is a full-face turn-around of the roles our shelters will play."

Conner says shelter providers are on board. During a recent meeting with representatives from shelters, including the Denver Rescue Mission, the Samaritan House and the Salvation Army's Crossroads Shelter, Conner recalls there being so much excitement about transitioning guests from emergency sheltering to more permanent housing that he had to butt in at the end of the meeting and add, “and we still need to make sure everybody has a space to come inside to each night, right?”

Chris Walker
Conner says that he's also going to look at rebooting the parking meter program — one of the most visible and popular campaigns by Denver's Road Home.

"Right now, when a quarter lands, where does it go?" Conner asks rhetorically. "It's not totally clear."

Conner is thinking of using all future proceeds to fund eviction-prevention efforts, which is in line with the city's overall affordable-housing strategy. And he has a new event in the works called the Giving Summit that will take place on February 5 around Civic Center Park. The summit will invite anyone who engages in charitable activities for the homeless, from large, established nonprofits to individuals who might pass out sack lunches on the street, to come together and coordinate the most effective and ethical ways to assist people experiencing homelessness.

Conner says the Giving Summit is part of a larger vision he has to bridge the social gap between people who are housed and those experiencing homelessness. "With a changing Denver, how do we help people share space?" he ponders.