Auditor Praises Denver for Putting Homelessness and Housing Programs Under One Roof

The city established HOST to put its homelessness and housing programs under one roof.
The city established HOST to put its homelessness and housing programs under one roof. Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
For decades, the City of Denver's work on homelessness and housing was spread between offices and departments. In a 2019 report, City Auditor Tim O'Brien said that Denver was all over the place on dealing with the issue, and less efficient than it could be as a result.

Later that year, Mayor Michael Hancock announced that he was forming the Department of Housing Stability, or HOST, which would focus solely on housing and homelessness.

In a follow-up audit released this month, O'Brien praised the city for setting up HOST and coming up with a five-year strategic plan to deal with homelessness. "I think the city took the recommendations very seriously," says O'Brien. "I think it was a big step in the right direction. Things were too diffuse, and to pull it all together in one place is the right thing to do."

The formation of HOST has generally been praised by public officials and service providers alike.

Councilwoman Robin Kniech, for example, says that she believes the city is "better poised" than it's ever been to deal with homelessness and housing issues, thanks in large part to HOST.

The CEO of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, John Parvensky, says that tapping Britta Fisher to lead HOST in 2019 provided "energy" and "new leadership."

"I would say Britta Fisher now is a good, strong leader who knows the issues," adds Tom Luehrs, head of the St. Francis Center.

But O'Brien thinks that the Hancock administration still has more work to do in order to comply with all of the suggestions in the 2019 audit. For example, the city has not yet aligned the staffing of HOST and its predecessor, Denver's Road Home, with its new priorities. "When it comes to doing things like the staffing analysis, I think the pandemic got in the way," O'Brien notes.

But Fisher disagrees with O'Brien's assessment. It would be "unproductive to continue to look backward at fixing an organizational structure that no longer exists," she says.

"We provided documentation of the city's staffing analysis, which included public and stakeholder meetings and ultimately led to the creation of a new Department of Housing Stability in 2019," she notes. "Based on these engagement efforts, the Department of Housing Stability has since significantly expanded staffing to better address the needs of those experiencing homelessness and housing instability in Denver. The city has expanded Denver’s Road Home from a team of seven people to an entire department, complete with more than 38 positions dedicated to Homelessness Resolution, plus a director and seven staff members devoted to strategy, policy and data, as the audit recommended."

While Hancock administration officials may disagree with this specific point in the new report, O'Brien is working on another homelessness audit that promises to be even more contentious.

In response to feedback from homeless-rights advocates, O'Brien announced late last year that his plan for 2022 would include an audit looking at "Denver’s oversight of encampments of people experiencing homelessness," which may examine "program costs, encampment cleanup processes and costs, and community impact." This evaluation will be the first in-depth public examination of how much Mayor Hancock's administration spends on encampment sweeps.

Early inquiries from O'Brien's staff were opposed by the Hancock administration, which initially contended that it wasn't able to track the amount spent on homeless sweeps. Eventually, however, the city told O'Brien that it could provide the numbers.

While O'Brien says it would be "dangerous" to talk in detail about an in-process audit, he can comment on future directions.

"What I hope is that the future audits are providing information for the administration and the council to help further deal with this significant problem," says O'Brien. "It’s a national problem. It’s a global problem."
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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.