Homeless

From Sweeps to "Encampment Decommissioning" in Denver

The City of Denver wants to engage in "encampment decommissioning."
The City of Denver wants to engage in "encampment decommissioning." Evan Semón
In Mayor Michael Hancock's proposed budget for 2023, a new phrase for the City of Denver — "encampment decommissioning" — shows up numerous times.

"Encampment decommissioning is terminology used by Houston to describe closing encampments through offering housing. This terminology resonated with us, as currently cleanup actions offer shelter and services but not a guarantee of long-term housing. This terminology provided a way to describe a different approach and action that does offer housing," says Britta Fisher, Denver's chief housing officer and head of the Department of Housing Stability.

Fisher was among the group of metro Denver officials who recently traveled to Houston, which has received plenty of praise over its housing-first approach to homelessness, including a June New York Times article titled "How Houston Moved 25,000 People From the Streets Into Homes of Their Own." But the city was already using the term before that trip.

The article offered an example of encampment decommissioning (but didn't use the term), during which Houston service providers and government officials were able to get everyone out of an encampment and into housing. This housing-first approach is what the City of Denver now preaches but isn't always able to practice, owing to a lack of deeply affordable housing. As a result, the city still sweeps encampments without having a place for all of the individuals who are cleared out, who simply move to another spot in Denver.

But the 2023 budget includes a $23.25 million line item for purchasing two motels to use as "housing navigation centers."

These centers, based on a Houston model, would be the first stop for many people leaving encampments. "We would close the encampment and bring them into the housing navigation center and then connect them to the long-term resource there," Fisher says, noting that rooms in the navigation centers could have a couple of people lodging in each, and would only be temporary.

The proposed 2023 budget also includes $20 million for the acquisition of two more hotels that will be transformed into approximately 220 supportive housing units.

"For this to work as housing navigation centers, we needed some immediate housing resource to connect people to, and that'll help prime the pump," Fisher explains. In other words, these 220 units will allow some of those brought from encampments to the navigation centers to move into housing immediately.

Encampment decommissioning from a housing-first perspective can only work if there's enough housing, she admits, and in the meantime, when some encampments are swept, their occupants will simply be displaced. "Certainly, how many encampments we can address with this method is dependent on housing," acknowledges Fisher.

"Yeah, it's not possible in Denver," says Denver City Council rep Candi CdeBaca, who went on the trip. "The way it's done in Houston is that a full camp is case-managed into housing, and the camp doesn't get shut down/decommissioned until everyone is slated for housing. The 'housing navigation center,' aka shelter, is the temporary location that camp residents move to while waiting to get into their housing. We don't have the housing supply to do that."

According to HOST's Five Year Strategic Plan, which outlines the department's work for 2022 through 2026, Denver has a shortage of almost 19,000 deeply affordable homes, which are affordable to a single-person household that makes $24,630 annually.

Some advocates wonder why the city is using the phrase "encampment decommissioning" when the housing isn't there.

"The model is supposed to involve housing that you move people into, immediately, en masse, out of an encampment," notes Terese Howard of Housekeys Action Network Denver. "That's not what we have going on here in Denver. Essentially, they're using the language in order to sound like they're doing something new and different and sound like they're connecting people to housing when that's absolutely not what they're doing."

Howard also wonders how the navigation centers will function if they don't have places for people to go. "Navigation centers only work if you have housing to connect folks to out of that. I'm definitely having some questions on how they're planning on running that," she says.

The City of Denver would have to purchase the properties for the pair of navigation centers and the two motels by the end of 2024 at the latest, since the money comes from American Rescue Plan Act funding, which has a set timeline. But given the city's current needs, Fisher is hopeful that the process can be quicker than that.

"If we can do it next year, that would be great," she says. "We have some procurement processes that we have to go through. We still need to wait to make sure that this budget gets approved."

Denver City Council must approve the budget by mid-November; in the meantime, council committees are discussing different aspects of the proposal.
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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.

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