After Problems and Lack of Direction, City's Homeless Commission Gets a Reboot

Back in 2004, the City of Denver convened the Commission to End Homelessness, a coalition of service providers, businesspeople, politicians and individuals experiencing homelessness tasked with creating solutions and advising the city on the complicated issue.

But the commission has been plagued with problems, especially after the group concluded its “ten-year plan to end homelessness.” After that, commission members told Westword, they were never consulted about the controversial urban-camping ban before it was signed into law, and the group only learned about some of the large sweeps of homeless encampments in 2016 the way that most Denverites did: through the news.

The lack of communication led some commission members to question the purpose and direction of the group, and in February of this year the city acknowledged their concerns. At a commission meeting on February 27, Office of HOPE director Erik Soliván noted, “There’s been frustration and there’s been some angst.” He added that he was setting up a task force to look at ways to revitalize and restructure the commission.

click to enlarge Erik Soliván addresses the Commission to End Homelessness in RiNo. - CHRIS WALKER
Erik Soliván addresses the Commission to End Homelessness in RiNo.
chris walker
On Wednesday, May 31, the city followed through on that promise, announcing in a press release that the current 43-member commission will be disbanded, then re-formed, with the goal of better addressing homelessness. The move is one of thirty short-term action items that Soliván unveiled at a housing summit on May 19.

The new and re-formed commission will not center as much around Denver’s Road Home, the city agency that the original commission helped create. Instead, future members will make recommendations directly to the Mayor’s Office of HOPE regarding services for people experiencing homelessness, and will work alongside the Mayor’s Housing Advisory Committee and other city commissions.

One of the most significant changes concerns the size and composition of the group. Denver Department of Human Services spokeswoman Julie Smith says that going forward, the revised commission will be made up of:

• At least a quarter membership from people with lived experiences (current/formerly homeless persons, advocacy groups)
• At least a quarter of the membership from homeless services and housing providers
• Representatives from neighborhoods, businesses, regional entities, and interfaith groups
• Non-voting representatives from city government and those with subject matter expertise
Mayor Michael Hancock will pick members through an application process, and members will serve two- or three-year terms.

Smith wrote in an e-mail to Westword that changing and restructuring the commission does not signal the end of Denver’s Road Home, even though that group and its executive director, Bennie Milliner, are being replaced by the Office of HOPE as the commission’s main point of contact with the city.

click to enlarge HOPE Office director Erik Soliván and Mayor Hancock at a May 19 housing summit. - CHRIS WALKER
HOPE Office director Erik Soliván and Mayor Hancock at a May 19 housing summit.
Chris Walker
Milliner had chaired the Commission to End Homelessness during the time that many complaints arose, including when service providers in the group were not notified by the city about the camping ban and sweeps.

“Bennie Milliner is still the Executive Director of Denver’s Road Home, and there is no plan to change that,” wrote Smith. “Denver’s Road Home will continue to staff the commission and the commission will advise the Mayor’s Office of HOPE.

“No city officials will have voting membership through the new structure,” she continued. “The commission will choose who will serve as chair. So, for example, Don Mares from [the Department of Human Services] and Tami Door from [the Downtown Denver Partnership] are the current co-chairs and [Milliner] is the city representative.... I want to be clear, though, that this really isn’t about [Milliner]. It’s about this commission being more reflective of the people it serves. That’s why there will be at least ¼ representation from people with lived experiences — something our advocate community has requested for many years.”

When pressed for more specifics about the voting membership and whether a future commission’s resolutions will hold any weight over decisions made by the mayor and Denver City Council, Smith would say only, “The restructured commission will advise the city on a variety of issues.”

It is unclear exactly when the new commission will be convened, but individuals representing organizations including Warren Village, the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative and Volunteers of America were listed in the city’s press release as participants; they are working toward identifying new members — a proposed total of twenty — and creating four subcommittees that will meet regularly. (Some ideas for those subcommittees were presented at the meeting in February. See the picture below.)

click to enlarge Three proposals to restructure the commission. - CHRIS WALKER
Three proposals to restructure the commission.
chris walker
Responding to the disbanding of the existing commission and the plans for a new group, Mayor Hancock wrote in the press release, “The work the Commission on Homelessness has accomplished…is incredible, and those immense efforts have positioned us well to continue making positive change for those experiencing homelessness. We thank them for that work, and welcome their continued partnership as this reorganization allows us to better align our strategic work to invest in programs that bring good health, good jobs and good homes to our communities."