Advocacy Group Asks: Can Denver Rethink Its Approach to Homelessness?

One of the many encampments set up in Capitol Hill during the winter of 2023.
One of the many encampments set up in Capitol Hill during the winter of 2023. Kyle Wagner

A relatively new political group in Denver is asking voters to consider different ways to address homelessness than the ones some lawmakers and mayoral candidates are talking about.

Citizens for a Safe and Clean Denver, a nonprofit and nonpartisan coalition of business and property owners, held a private forum with residents of the Barclay Towers, at 17th and Larimer streets, on February 22 as part of its ongoing outreach to change the conversation around strategies for helping the unhoused.

At the meeting, the coalition asked the residents to consider solutions such as involuntarily committing unsheltered homeless people into mental health or substance abuse treatment programs, bolstering law enforcement presence at encampment sweeps, and ending Denver’s “housing first” approach to homelessness.

“It’s not compassionate to let someone sleep outside in a tent when it’s negative-three degrees outside because they have a substance-abuse issue or problem with their mental health,” Craig Arfsten, a financial planner who's one of the group’s founders, said during the meeting.

The solutions offered at the meeting stand in contrast to ideas from mayoral candidates such as Lisa Calderón, who has said she would increase the number of city-owned housing units to get people off the streets. Other candidates, such as Leslie Herod and Ean Thomas Tafoya, have said they would stop sweeping encampments and focus on improving connections between people experiencing homelessness and social workers who can connect them with services and housing options.

Members of Safe and Clean Denver started organizing about eighteen months ago after having multiple run-ins with people experiencing homelessness in Denver.

For example, Wendy Heath-Santeramo, a broker with HomeSmart Realty and a former U.S. marshal, shared a story about how she and her wife were accosted by a homeless person near Colfax and Broadway. Heath-Santeramo said her wife called the cops, but the Denver Police Department’s slow response forced her wife to pull her handgun on the individual to protect their safety.

click to enlarge
Evan Semón

David Howard, a co-founder of the coalition, said that one of his neighbors in the Golden Triangle called the cops “at least 500 times” on a local encampment, but the police refused to remove the tents. Howard said his neighbor resorted to vigilantism and “scared the people away from the area.”

Since its founding, the group has met with Mayor Michael Hancock to discuss homeless policy initiatives, according to Arfstein; he noted that members also hold regular meetings with officers with the DPD’s District 6 precinct (which covers downtown) and have also met with Armando Saldate, the executive director of Denver’s Department of Public Safety

“Denver was a great city, and it could be a great city again,” Howard said.

One of the main issues the coalition focused on during the forum was Denver’s housing-first approach to ending homelessness, which it said has failed because it “doesn’t lead to recovery.” Housing first refers to a service plan where an individual is placed in supportive housing before they enter other programs for substance abuse, mental and physical health care, or job training.

There are multiple empirical studies that show the housing-first approach is particularly effective at improving housing outcomes for people experiencing chronic homelessness and those with substance abuse disorders.

For instance, one study conducted by the University of Toronto in 2015 found that housing-first models reduced the number of days their participants excessively drank alcohol over a two-year period. In addition, a review of Denver's Social Impact Bond program by the think tank Urban Institute in 2021 found that the program increased access to health care for the city’s chronically homeless, especially for those who need mental, physical and substance abuse disorder programs. More than 70 percent of the people who entered Denver’s Social Impact Bond program also stayed housed after three years, the study found.

The group also took issue with the support that safe injection sites — which Arfsten described as "overdose reversal sites" — have received from local lawmakers and mayoral candidates. Safe injection sites are places where people can use illicit substances under the supervision of medical professionals; researchers at the University of Southern California say these sites can also “provide critical services” like case management and medical, social and mental health care.

Representative Elisabeth Epps and Senator Julie Gonzales, both Democrats, are co-sponsoring a bill to allow municipalities to establish their own policies regarding safe injection sites. The bill follows other efforts by the legislature to integrate harm-reduction approaches to substance abuse disorder treatment in Colorado.

Instead of using housing-first programs or approving safe injection sites, Safe and Clean Denver wants voters to consider adopting a treatment-first model to address homelessness. This approach would require people living on the street to successfully complete some kind of treatment program before they are placed in housing.

While members of the group said Alberta, Canada, offers a good example of a treatment-first approach, the province's website says that it actually takes a housing-first approach to addressing homelessness.

“Whoever is the next mayor of Denver will set the tone for the next several years,” Arfsten said. “We need to make sure they get it right.”

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.

Latest Stories