Denver Mayor Poaches City Employees to Help House the Homeless | Westword


Mayor Johnston Poaches From City Departments for Help Housing Denver's Homeless

Mayor Mike Johnston has been asking city department officials to send him their best and brightest for one last "Hail Mary" at his House1000 initiative.
Mayor Mike Johnston is recruiting employees from other city departments to deploy an outreach workforce to help him house 1,000 people.
Mayor Mike Johnston is recruiting employees from other city departments to deploy an outreach workforce to help him house 1,000 people. Bennito L. Kelty
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Mayor Mike Johnston has about five weeks left to house 1,000 people before the end of 2023, a mission he's been on since mid-July. With more than 700 people still needing to be placed, the city is going to have to get busy.

Its solution: poaching employees from other departments — including the Department of Public Safety, Parks & Recreation and even the Denver Public Library, of all places — to help finish the job.

"We basically don't have enough outreach workers in this city to accomplish what we're planning to accomplish in the month of December," says Cole Chandler, Johnston's senior adviser on homelessness resolution. "So we have to come up with a workforce that can help us move people indoors."

Chandler tells Westword that the city has been looking at how it can grow its "outreach workforce among city workers," with reinforcements from its department sector being key.

"We've looked at what are some similar positions in other departments," he says. 

According to Jose Salas, deputy director of communications for Johnston, some of the agencies and departments being asked to answer Chandler's call include Public Health & Environment, Transportation & Infrastructure, and General Services & Housing Stability.

Unfortunately for the mayor's office, "some agencies were not able to provide staff to support this request at this time. This includes Denver library staff," Salas says. "However, we met our goal of adding approximately thirty staff members to our efforts."

The mayor's office reached out "to request support from approximately thirty employees from various agencies," Salas says. Those who responded were asked to report for training on Monday, November 20. The city staffers will "report to new duties from November 27 through January 31," during which time the workers will be on the streets of Denver performing outreach to homeless residents in an attempt to move them indoors.

"As we approach the end of the year and more units are coming online, the city will ramp up its efforts in the coming weeks," Salas says. "In order to meet our goal, existing staff is preparing and coordinating to help bring several hundred people experiencing homelessness indoors, especially as the winter months and lower temperatures approach. We also acknowledge additional staff may be necessary to accomplish this."

The City of Denver has already housed 292 people through Johnston's House1000 initiative as of Tuesday, November 21, according to its housing dashboard. Most of these people were housed after being swept, and almost all of them have been moved to converted hotel rooms — though a handful are now at Tiny Home Villages run by Colorado Village Collaborative

"We're still running at this goal [House1000], and we have a plan to bring 1,000 people indoors," Chandler says. "We still feel really confident in that."

To reach the goal, the city will be "doing move-ins all throughout the month, moving hundreds of people indoors," according to Chandler. "We're gearing up for that. We have outreach teams that are gearing up for that. We're training new outreach workers to participate in this, and we're getting ready to open sites. I mostly just feel really excited."

While department employees are given the option of joining Johnston and Chandler's efforts, the former Colorado Village Collaborative head sees it as a way for people "to work on a once-in-a-lifetime kind of project and be a part of something historic, moving 750 people indoors during the month of December," he says.

"Ultimately, their job is changing for this short period of time," Chandler tells Westword. "So there is kind of redeployment to shift them to a new supervisor for this time limit."

When the mayor reached out to heads of departments and agencies for the roughly thirty people he needed, each "then confirmed a list of employees who could support," Salas says. "Mayor Mike Johnston then met with these employees and executive directors last week to thank them for their support and answer any potential questions."
click to enlarge Cole Chandler is the mayor's senior advisor on homelessness.
Cole Chandler, the mayor's senior adviser on homelessness, says that the city is shorthanded as it tries to bring more than 700 homeless residents indoors in December to meet its "House1000" goal.
Evan Semón
The mayor's office is unable to say whether these employees-turned-outreach workers will get additional compensation for helping out. "Although we are still working through the details, we are not able to share employee information, including compensation and names, to protect their privacy and safety," Salas says. "We are working with the Office of Human Resources to identify potential overtime for those who quality. We will communicate directly with those employees once we have more. Grant-funded positions are not a part of this."

The training scheduled for November 20 was aimed at teaching the employees how to do the work of moving homeless residents "in a trauma-informed and skilled way," Chandler says. The mayor targeted employees "whose skills and missions match the current need to accomplish these efforts," according to Salas. 

The mayor's office was looking for "where they have some workers that might have similar skill sets," Chandler says. "The way it's working is there's a certain amount of workforce that we need, and so we identified particular people that had similar skill sets. We cast a wide net and gave them an opportunity."

During its search, the mayor's office "identified some particular people, like 'These people would be great,'" Chandler recalls. But he is unable to share who that might be.

"We cast a wide net," he repeats.

Johnston has told Denver residents during his town halls and community information meetings that he's also looking to non-city workers to volunteer and help with the move-ins; residents can find volunteer opportunities with Johnston's House1000 initiative online.

The plan with the volunteers, Chandler says, "is to help support move-ins" by having them "receive people as they arrive at their new housing location," including micro-communities.

"They help carry items and bags and luggage and all those kinds of things to people's rooms and help create a welcome and warm environment at those new locations," Chandler explains. "There are some opportunities already online for the month of December, and there will be more of those forthcoming as well."

The main thing that Chandler sees with this interdepartmental outreach effort is that the mayor's office is offering a chance for other city employees to take part in an opportunity they wouldn't otherwise have.

"At the heart of it, this is an incredible opportunity," Chandler says. "We have the chance to do something that's never been done before, and literally get 750 people indoors during the month of December. This is an awesome thing to be a part of."
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