City Audit Faults Denver’s “Fragmented” Approach to Homelessness

Brandon Marshall
The City of Denver has failed to develop an effective strategy and devote enough resources to its efforts to reduce homelessness, a new report from the city’s auditor found. Mayor Michael Hancock says he’s moving quickly to implement the report’s recommendations.

The 57-page report, issued by Denver Auditor Timothy O’Brien on Thursday, April 18, faulted the city for its “fragmented” approach to homeless services and prevention, in which key responsibilities are spread across different agencies and departments. It found that the lead agency in the city’s homelessness efforts, Denver’s Road Home, is understaffed and lacks the resources necessary for strategic planning and policy development.

“Homelessness is a high priority issue for Denver,” the report read. “However, we could be using our resources more effectively with possibly better results if we had a comprehensive citywide strategy, defined leadership and more specific goals to define success.”

O’Brien’s report made five recommendations to improve the city’s approach, which included conducting a staffing analysis of Road Home and developing a “comprehensive citywide strategic plan” with specific goals and performance metrics for reducing homelessness.

The audit indicated that city officials agreed to implement each of its recommendations, and in a statement on Thursday, Hancock said he would go one step further, announcing plans to establish a new city department to lead its homelessness efforts.

“We appreciate the auditor’s common-sense recommendations, which are in line with our plan to focus our collective efforts through the creation of a new department of housing and homelessness,” said Hancock.

The proposed new department has “been in the works for a little more than a year,” says Julie Smith, communications director for the city’s Department of Human Services. A more detailed announcement of Hancock’s proposal is expected to be made today, April 19, at Denver’s annual Housing Forum.

A 2018 survey conducted by the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative found 5,317 people experiencing homelessness in the seven-county Denver metro area, and 3,445 within city limits. That’s down from peak levels recorded during the Great Recession, but it’s a figure advocates and city officials agree is still far too high, driven by a range of factors, including Denver’s affordable-housing shortage and a lack of mental health services for vulnerable populations.

The new department wouldn’t be the first city office that Hancock established to address housing issues — in 2016, he created the Office of Housing and Opportunities for People Everywhere, which he said would be responsible for developing a “coordinated and comprehensive approach to the policies, programs and projects along the full homeless to housing spectrum.”

But Erik Soliván, the Office of HOPE’s first executive director, resigned just over a year into his tenure, shortly after the agency was placed under the direction of the city’s Office of Economic Development. A 33-item action plan developed by the office in 2017 assigned responsibilities to thirteen different agencies across city government, but many of those items remain unaddressed — a result that O'Brien's office, in its audit, attributed to a lack of "leadership or authority to oversee and monitor the progress of the entire collaborative effort."

"For more than 10 years, various groups have had responsibility for strategy- and policy-related planning for and implementation of the City’s approach to addressing homelessness," the report said, including Road Home, the Office of HOPE, former mayor John Hickenlooper's Commission to End Homelessness and other appointed bodies like Hancock's Housing Advisory Committee and the Advisory Committee for Housing People Experiencing Homelessness.

As it brings these efforts under a single city department, Hancock's administration plans to develop a new "comprehensive strategic plan" to govern its approach, as recommended by the audit report, and the mayor's 2019 budget calls for more than $51 million to be invested in homeless services.

“A more comprehensive strategy, well-defined performance measures, and aligned staff and community resources could lead to real improvement when it comes to addressing homelessness,” said O’Brien. “I look forward to seeing how the mayor plans to make it happen in his new department.”
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Chase Woodruff is a staff writer at Westword interested in climate change, the environment and money in politics.
Contact: Chase Woodruff