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Denver Increasing Spending on Homelessness, Housing in 2021

Even before new tax money comes in, Denver plans to increase spending on housing and homelessness.EXPAND
Even before new tax money comes in, Denver plans to increase spending on housing and homelessness.
Evan Semón

Even with an expected budget gap of approximately $190 million for 2021, the City of Denver plans to increase spending on housing and homelessness services.

"My 2021 budget places significant focus towards strengthening supports for people experiencing homelessness and people in underresourced communities," Mayor Michael Hancock wrote in a September 15 letter explaining his proposed budget. "We are making the cuts needed to balance our budget by reducing spending in all areas, except social services, where we will continue to invest in efforts to support our most vulnerable by increasing our investments in shelter, healthcare and social services."

Denver City Council formally adopted Hancock's $1.327 billion budget on November 9 by a twelve-to-one vote. Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca, who has been critical of the way the city spends its money and frequently opposes proposals coming from the mayor's office, cast the lone no vote.

The budget includes an allocation of over $75 million for the city's Department of Housing Stability (HOST), which focuses on housing and homelessness issues. That's up from the $72.4 million that the city had allocated to HOST in its 2020 budget, adding to funds for such things as shelter contracts, case management and affordable housing.

"These are really important resources to help us do very important work for those experiencing homelessness and housing instability," says Laura Brudzynski, deputy director of operations at HOST.

Combined with both emergency and non-emergency federal funding, HOST will have around $103 million available in 2021.

HOST, whose formation Denver voters approved in 2019, centralized a variety of resources that had been spread across Denver's government agencies, with a goal of improving the city's focus on stabilizing households to prevent instability or displacement, helping individuals experiencing homelessness work their way toward stable housing, and increasing the city's affordable-housing stock.

The 2021 budget figures do not include the funds — an estimated $40 million annually — that will result from Denver voters passing Measure 2B on November 3; it will increase the city sales tax by .25 percent, with that increase earmarked for homelessness services and housing projects.

The increase in budgeted funding for housing and homelessness is remarkable, considering the city's massive revenue projection shortfall. But it also reflects how important this issue has been for almost two decades.

In 2004, then-Mayor John Hickenlooper, now senator-elect for Colorado, initiated a "ten-year plan to end homelessness." Ten years later, figures from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development showed that the total number of individuals experiencing homelessness in Colorado had dropped by 29.5 percent since 2007. That well outpaced the 10 percent reduction nationally.

The Hancock administration has focused on a housing-first model that aims to get those experiencing homelessness into permanent or more stable housing situations.

In the first eight months of 2020, the city opened, started building or allocated funding for 900 affordable homes. HOST also negotiated voluntary affordable-housing agreements with developers that are expected to create about 100 income-restricted affordable-housing units.

These successes in increasing the city's affordable housing stock are often overshadowed by controversy over the Hancock administration's most controversial move related to homelessness, however.

Part of Hancock's housing-first strategy involved the creation in 2012 of the unauthorized camping ordinance, also known as the camping ban. It allows city authorities to disperse homeless individuals who are using tents or sleeping bags to shelter outdoors in Denver. The ordinance has been the subject of multiple legal challenges, including an ongoing one in the U.S. District Court of Colorado. A Denver County Court judge had declared the camping ban unconstitutional in late 2019, but that decision was fully reversed on appeal.

A key contributing factor to homelessness in Denver is a lack of affordable housing.

The number of households in Denver has outpaced the growth in housing stock in recent years, which has led to increases in rent and home prices. From 2012 to 2018, rents in Denver increased by 62 percent, while the median value of a home in Denver increased by 73 percent. At the same time, however, incomes only increased by 35 percent, according to HOST's 2021 Action Plan.

In recent years, homelessness in Denver has been on the rise, according to the annual Point in Time Count, which showed that number reaching 4,171 in January 2020; 996 of the people counted were living in unsheltered settings. Service providers say this number is an undercount, however, and have registered a significant uptick in the number of those living on the streets of Denver in tents during the pandemic.

Teaming up with service providers, Denver is currently trying to establish multiple safe-camping sites throughout the city. These sites, the first of which could come online in December, will allow those experiencing homelessness to sleep in tents in sanitary outdoor settings while also accessing employment and housing placement resources. There will be portable toilets, sinks, trash pick-up and visits from a mobile shower unit.

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The first two attempts to establish such sites failed after either CdeBaca or Hancock, both of whom support the concept of safe-camping sites, pulled their support following pushback from neighbors or businesses. Both of the proposed sites were in CdeBaca's council district.

Last week, however, service providers, including the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, proposed two safe-camping sites in Capitol Hill that, because they're on church property, won't be subject to council approval.

The City of Denver is still seeking proposals from other service providers and landowners for additional safe-camping sites as well as safe-parking sites, for those experiencing homelessness who still have a car.

In 2021, the city will also be working toward re-establishing its shelter capacity at 2,100 beds; it had dropped down to 900 at one point during the pandemic.

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