Metro Denver Politicians Study Homelessness Solutions in Houston

Juan Marcano, Alison Coombs and Candi CdeBaca traveled to Houston on a fact-finding mission.
Juan Marcano, Alison Coombs and Candi CdeBaca traveled to Houston on a fact-finding mission. Courtesy of Juan Marcano
Fresh from a trip to Houston to learn how that Texas city has been so successful in dealing with homelessness, metro area politicians have some new ideas...and a few that sound familiar.

"My biggest takeaway from the trip is that we should develop and execute one unified regional solution regarding homelessness," says Chris Hinds, the Denver City Council representative representing the Golden Triangle, Capitol Hill and other hot spots.

Hinds was joined on the September 14-15 fact-finding mission by council colleague Candi CdeBaca, as well as Aurora mayor Mike Coffman, Aurora City Council members Juan Marcano and Alison Coombs, Adams County Commissioner Eva Henry and Arapahoe County Commissioner Nancy Jackson.  The trip — organized by the City of Aurora, which sent out an open invitation to politicians in other municipalities, who used funding from their offices to cover costs — was inspired by a June New York Times story, "How Houston Moved 25,000 People From the Streets Into Homes of Their Own."

According to the Times, Houston found success by collaborating with county agencies and persuading local service providers, corporations and nonprofits to join together to find a solution for homelessness. They focused on a housing-first approach that emphasizes getting people experiencing homelessness into housing rather than first requiring them to get off drugs or get a job.

"Housing first is wildly successful," says Coombs, noting that 90 percent of the individuals experiencing homelessness who were housed by Houston remain in homes. "We have to find a way to break through the political gridlock and focus on solving the issue, not besting each other in politics and rhetoric."

But she may find some gridlock at home. While Coffman says he recognizes that Houston and its partners have collaborated effectively, Aurora's mayor isn't ready to buy into the housing-first approach. "One problem that I had, during the visit, was their inability to explain what happens with the participants in the program during the two years that they were being housed without any specific preconditions or requirements," Coffman wrote on Facebook on September 16. "Even though they had case managers working with the participants, they had no data to share concerning the disposition of their participants during the 24 months that they were entitled, under the program, for free housing. To what extent did they seek and receive mental health care, addiction recovery services, job training, or job placement during the 24-month period?"

Coffman sponsored a camping-ban ordinance similar to Denver's that was recently enacted by Aurora City Council. Such ordinances are controversial among homeless service providers, and Aurora councilmember Marcano strongly opposed it. During the Houston trip, Marcano live-tweeted some of his thoughts on criminalizing homelessness: "Shelters, tickets, sweeps, and jail do absolutely nothing to solve the problem but trap us in a cycle of wasting public resources and retraumatizing people living on the street. It also makes them more difficult to eventually house due to having to rebuild trust."
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Mayor Michael Hancock studied how Houston is handling homelessness.
Courtesy of Jennifer Castor
Evan Dreyer, Mayor Michael Hancock's deputy chief of staff, was on the trip, and he was back in Houston early this week, when Hancock attended the National Nonpartisan Conversation on Voter Rights there. As part of his visit, Hancock met with Houston mayor Sylvester Turner and also toured a soon-to-be-finished homelessness navigation center.

"They, interestingly, received thousands of housing vouchers after Hurricane Harvey," Dreyer says. "They had a housing market that, for a period of time, had some flex in it, some capacity, some availability and some vacancy, and they were able to take advantage of that."

What lessons can Denver learn from that? "We have got to create more housing faster. And that's just apparent," Dreyer says. "They've had some great opportunities that kind of came together to help them, but they also are singularly focused on housing with wraparound supportive services. We've got to double down and we've got to do more, and we've got to do it faster. It's the key to everything."

CdeBaca, the Denver City Council member who represents areas of town such as Globeville and Elyria-Swansea, says she's excited that there's an "appetite for regional action" on homelessness. But she also believes that in order to make the biggest impact on the issue, state lawmakers need to change Colorado law so that municipalities "can intervene as a government to control the price of housing," which she describes as "rent stabilization and social housing."

The idea of homeless service providers collaborating on the issue of homelessness is not a new one in the Mile High City. Denver's Road Home, created by Mayor John Hickenlooper's administration in 2005, was designed to bring together the various entities working on homelessness in Denver who'd been operating in silos. In fact, one of the first slides in the Houston presentation on its homelessness work — which it has shown to numerous visiting delegations, not just the metro Denver officials — notes that the Texas city had based its model for handling homelessness on Denver's Road Home.

But Denver's program lacked significant funding, and while the city has been pushing for region-wide collaboration for years, some politicians in nearby municipalities categorized homelessness as largely an urban-Denver issue. But that's changed, as homelessness spread to the suburbs and beyond during the pandemic. In March 2021, elected officials gathered for a summit on homelessness coordination organized by the Denver Metro Homeless Initiative.

Still, a housing-first approach where people living in encampments are provided with housing rather than simply being displaced has not been a priority in metro municipalities, partly because that approach is expensive and requires a deep inventory of affordable housing. Denver, for example, has a shortage of about 19,000 rental units for a single-person household making at or below $24,630, which is 30 percent of the area median income.

In his proposed 2023 Denver budget, Hancock is asking the City of Denver to spend $20 million on hotels that would be converted into supportive housing and $23.25 million more for the acquisition of hotels that the city would use for people currently living in encampments, so that they can transition into housing.

"I think that we all are trying to accomplish ending homelessness. I think everybody recognizes the essential, fundamental solution is housing. It also means services and resources and support. That's how we look at it. It can't be resources without the housing, and it can't be housing without resources. Housing first does not mean housing only," Dreyer says.
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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.