Denver Government

Denver Swings for the Fences to Fight Homelessness, Add Housing

Denver is spending more than ever on homelessness and housing.
Denver is spending more than ever on homelessness and housing. Evan Semón
At the end of June, Mayor Michael Hancock announced a new housing and homelessness strategy as part of Denver's recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. "An episode of homelessness should be no more than a brief, one-time circumstance, and we must do everything in our power to stabilize our most vulnerable neighbors," Hancock said during a June 30 speech.

The five-pronged plan calls for buying hotels and motels and turning them into supportive housing, adding more safe-camping sites, expanding housing voucher programs, providing more rental assistance and eviction protection, and increasing the availability of housing.

At the same time, however, the City of Denver has continued its sweeps of unsanctioned encampments at a fast clip.

All of these moves cost money.

"The first thing that jumps out is that the City of Denver is making investments in homelessness unlike it ever has," says Cathy Alderman of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, after looking over 2021 budget information regarding housing and homelessness spending that the city provided to Westword.

Denver earmarked around $91 million for housing and homelessness in its 2021 budget. That figure does not include over $100 million that the city has spent on housing and homelessness over the course of the pandemic using federal COVID-19 relief money, or the nearly $50 million that it has received as part of the American Rescue Plan Act's Emergency Rental Assistance Funds. The city still expects to spend tens of millions of dollars more on housing and homelessness using additional relief money.

Over $75 million of the budget's $91 million-plus goes to the Department of Housing Stability, a relatively new city agency that focuses on housing and homelessness. HOST doles out some of that money for the operation of emergency homeless shelters by nonprofit service providers; the department also spends federal grant money across a variety of categories, such as affordable-housing development and assisting individuals and families experiencing homelessness in moving toward transitional and permanent housing.

HOST will oversee around $27 million in the 2021 budget that also goes for affordable-housing development; that money comes from property taxes and a fee that developers pay for new projects.

A Point in Time survey conducted in 2020 showed 4,171 people experiencing homelessness in Denver, with around 1,000 of those people living in unsheltered settings. During the pandemic, those numbers have likely increased, with Denver officials estimating that the unsheltered number could be as high as 1,500 today.

Besides the allocations for HOST, the 2021 budget includes about $3.5 million for homelessness and housing services for Denver Human Services. That money is used for a variety of services, including those required by individuals needing short-term sheltering and food assistance.

The 2021 budget also allocates about $3.4 million for the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment for "short-term crisis stabilization and transitional housing," according to the budget document prepared by the Department of Finance. And the Denver Public Library system, which has staffers who interface heavily with people experiencing homelessness, gets over a million dollars for paying employees and deploying technology geared toward people experiencing homelessness.

The budget document shows $116,000 earmarked for four officers who serve on the Denver Police Department's Homeless Outreach Team.

Over the past two decades, Denver has steadily increased its budget allotment for housing and homelessness.

“When I first started with the city in ’99, we had Economic Development, and they had some housing dollars in there, but we didn’t have a whole agency focused on housing and homelessness," says Stephanie Adams, the city's budget director. "And, quite frankly, we had very little general-fund dollars" allocated to housing and homelessness.

Federal aid for housing and homelessness has decreased over the past two decades. Denver's increases have not only matched those decreases, but have gone far above, in order to become more responsive to the needs of Denver residents, according to Adams.

"It has been a wholesale change," says at-large Denver City Councilwoman Robin Kniech, who has spent much of her work as an elected official focused on homelessness and housing. "The things that we’re investing in work. But we have more people falling into homelessness or falling behind as housing costs continue to grow faster."

At a time when Denver officials were cutting departmental budgets to cover the revenue gap resulting from the economic pains of the COVID pandemic, the city increased HOST's budget by over $2.5 million from 2020 to 2021.

The $91 million-plus figure doesn't capture all of the money that is spent on housing and homelessness.

For example, Alderman notes, "I think the piece that remains missing is what are the costs of the camping ban enforcements, because those are still spread out over different departments. And while we would certainly not say that that is an investment in homelessness, it is a cost that the city chooses to take on."

City councilmembers have asked the city how it quantifies the costs of clearing out encampments.

"There's just a lot of mechanics around this question that make it very difficult to say 'It’s this amount,' because it’s so dependent on the conditions that you’re encountering," says Julie Smith, a Department of Finance spokesperson. "In the course of city government, we don’t necessarily always track our budget expenditures in that fine of a detail."

In December 2020, All In Denver, a nonprofit whose goal is to make Denver a "more equitable city" and whose board includes both allies and opponents of Mayor Michael Hancock, requested that the Denver auditor look at how much encampment sweeps cost the city.

Auditor Timothy O'Brien is planning to perform two audits related to homelessness later this year.

"The scope of these audits has not been determined; however, we may be able to consider the cost information All In Denver has requested from the mayor," says Tayler Overschmidt, a spokesperson for the auditor's office. "Auditor O’Brien has already spoken to his team about his interest in considering this information if it is available."

Alderman thinks that the Hancock administration would want to know how much sweeps end up costing the city.

"I would think that they would want to understand from a cost-benefit analysis, if we’re enforcing the camping ban to the tune of x dollars, what is the benefit that we’re providing? My guess is that it’s pretty expensive, and we know that it’s unproductive," she notes. "And then compare that cost to what the cost of the safe-outdoor spaces have been."

But the sweeps will continue, and the mayor insists that the current cleanup schedule is unrelated to the All-Star Game putting Denver in the spotlight. "Unsanctioned encampments are not an option," Hancock said during that June 30 announcement. "House keys have more power to change lives than a tent."
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.