As the phenomenon of people living outdoors spreads throughout metro Denver, elected officials from across the region — including mayors, council reps, county commissioners, city managers and other leaders — will gather on Thursday, March 18, for a three-hour virtual summit focused on addressing homelessness.
"We’ve been finding that there’s increasing interest and urgency throughout the metro region for communities to engage around finding solutions and ways to help people experiencing homelessness," says Matt Meyer, executive director of the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative, which is hosting the "Metro Denver Convening on Homelessness" event.
"This is the largest convening in the region that has been pulled together in terms of the communities who will be represented," says Meyer. Around 450 elected officials, including members of the Colorado Legislature and Colorado's congressional delegation, have been invited to participate.
Aside from MDHI's programming, a nonprofit named Community Solutions, whose mission is "to create a lasting end to homelessness that leaves no one behind," will present its Built for Zero movement, which involves over eighty cities and counties using a data-driven approach to end homelessness.
Through a 2020 Point in Time Count spearheaded by MDHI, surveyors identified 6,104 homeless individuals either staying in shelters or living in unsheltered settings in Denver, Jefferson, Douglas, Adams, Arapahoe, Broomfield and Boulder counties. The numbers for both Denver — 4,171 in 2020 — and the metro area have been rising since 2017, even before the pandemic hit; service providers believe the number of people experiencing homelessness has increased since then. While MDHI didn't conduct a count of the unsheltered population in 2021 because of COVID-19 concerns, it will be tallying those in shelters.
Meyer says that awareness of homelessness has been growing across metro Denver, especially in the suburbs, where it has become more visible.
"That predates the COVID pandemic. And things have already accelerated from there," says Meyer. "In the COVID pandemic, the public health mandate is to stay home. What does that mean for people who are unhoused? ... I think that the general public became acutely aware of that, even more so, and frustrated and saddened by that, and I think that created more urgency and a call for action."
Meyer hopes that elected officials, a few of whom will offer presentations, will leave the summit with three key takeaways: that service providers are doing effective work to help people get out of homelessness, but don't have enough resources; that elected officials need to engage on a local level and see how they can help boost resources for service providers; and that they must work on addressing homelessness regionally.
The Denver Department of Housing Stability, which oversees the city's efforts to tackle homelessness, has a budget of over $100 million for 2021, including federal funding. And the City of Aurora spends tens of millions of dollars on homelessness and housing on an annual basis. But many other cities and some counties in the metro area allocate next to nothing to homelessness and housing.
Service providers have long suggested that a regional approach to homelessness would be the most effective, since the issue knows no borders. However, up to this point, any regional coordination has largely been between nonprofits, not city and county governments, according to John Parvensky, executive director of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.
In early 2020, Lakewood mayor Adam Paul, Aurora mayor Mike Coffman and Denver mayor Michael Hancock had started working together on homelessness, with plans to expand from the three cities to a regional approach. But that effort was sidelined by the pandemic. This new initiative being led by MDHI stems from those initial planning efforts by the three mayors, according to City of Denver staff.
Meyer will ask the elected officials who participate in the summit to commit to prioritizing homelessness, as well as commissioning experts who will oversee working on regional homelessness. And then Meyer anticipates that the participants will form "local coordination teams" that will meet every month or every other month.
"The plan is for this to become ongoing, active work," Meyer says.
The summit will take place from 8:30 to 11:30 a.m. Thursday, March 18; watch it live here.
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