Councilwoman rips Hickenlooper's plan to boost spending for homeless

Mayor John Hickenlooper wants to use $2.3 million from Denver's general fund to continue his quest, announced circa 2005, to end homelessness here in ten years. The move appears to have plenty of support on city council, even though the current budget is in such grim condition that Hick threatened police officers with sweeping layoffs if they didn't agree to forgo raises. But not every council member is on his side. Indeed, District 2 rep Jeanne Faatz has a slew of objections to the ways in which this money would be spent and even questions the realism of Hickenlooper's goal.

"I don't know anybody who believes that in ten years, we're going to end homelessness," Faatz says. "And we'll be paying for the ending-the-homelessness plan for a lot longer than ten years. This could just absorb gigantic amounts of money."

Hickenlooper's idea earmarks $800,000 from the general fund for the construction of 500 new apartments for the homeless -- and according to the Denver Post, he imagines that a similar amount will be needed on an annual basis over the next two decades to support the initiative. In addition, he's asking for $1.5 million to pay for assorted homeless-related services, although that total will be cut by a third if he manages to collect $500,000 from private donors, as he hopes. During a recent briefing, Hickenlooper rationalized these expenditures in part by saying the city has saved $2.1 million at facilities like Denver CARES and can now rent jail space once to other communities because many of those who previously spent time in detox or stir are in places of their own.

Sounds great, as Faatz recognizes. "From a public-relations standpoint, it's been presented in a way where people say, 'Oh, gosh, yes, we need to do this,'" she concedes. But, she goes on, "I feel it's very inappropriate to be using general-funds money for this effort."

Why? "Denver is both a city and a county, but the functions are quite different, and we have different funding sources for each," she says. "The county's functions are more the welfare approach, and there's a mill levy for that. And the city side funds basic city services -- and we've never used the city funding to build apartments for the homeless. Which isn't to say we haven't used other funding. There's stimulus moneys now, and community development block grants -- all kinds of funding sources. But at this point, [Hickenlooper's] so enthusiastic about this whole thing that he wants to gobble up almost every funding source for this purpose."

In Faatz's view, the current economic situation makes this decision even more dubious. "We have a $120 million deficit, and we're cutting services to citizens, reducing library hours... We've got a gigantic hole in the general fund, but we're looking at taking more money out of it for this."

Faatz doesn't see housing alone as a magic cure-all for homelessness in general. "You have many people with substance-abuse problems who are making no commitment up-front before they get an apartment to stop drinking, stop using drugs. There are many people who see this as an enabling tool that actually works to the disadvantage of many participants. Some will react to it well, and some will not -- but is that the best use of taxpayer dollars?"

As for the savings Hickenlooper says his homeless program has racked up to date and will presumably register in the future, his math may be funny, Faatz says. "I believe that if anybody does a critical analysis, they're going to see this is largely mythology. We're going into our fifth year so far, and we haven't saved a dime from our budget. Denver CARES is finally going down a smidgen. It's about $69,000 less than last year's appropriation. But if you start to consider the capital construction costs for all the units, you realize the rents are largely being funded by government sources of one type or another. And when you look at all the services that are being provided, these savings are elusive."

And then there's the matter of those policemen and other city workers whose won't be getting salary boosts. Faatz doesn't have a problem with that in general: "When you have such bad economic times, it's entirely justifiable not to provide raises. But they have contracts, and we're asking them of their own volition to open up those contracts. I believe we have a responsibility to scrape up every cent we have that's in the general fund, since that's what they're paid out of, so we can tell them, 'We don't have the resources.'

"That's why, to me, it's a breach of faith to be siphoning money out of that pot, creating an even bigger hole, and then telling them, 'Gee, things are so dire.' Things are dire, but this adds insult to injury."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts