When Mayor Michael Hancock announced a proposal to create a new Department of Housing and Homelessness back in April, a press release touted it as “the next step in the Hancock Administration’s commitment to addressing the continued need for more affordable housing and better services for those experiencing homelessness in our city,” but stayed fuzzy on what, exactly, that would mean. As city officials boot up for the new department to come to fruition early next year, a few details have now been filled in — but it’s still unclear how much it will change the landscape of the city’s efforts to address homelessness.
First off, the department will now be called the Department of Housing Stability. Chief Housing Officer Britta Fisher, who will lead the department, says this change was based on conversations she had with city-appointed bodies like the Housing Advisory Committee, the Advisory Committee for People Experiencing Homelessness, and other stakeholders in preparation for the rollout of the department.
“The outcome we're driving for is really that housing stability, whether that's for somebody who is precariously housed or vulnerable to displacement, someone who's experiencing homelessness, or somebody still looking for housing affordability,” says Fisher.
The city has begun some bureaucratic reshuffling in preparation for the change. Denver’s Road Home, the preeminent city entity focused on addressing homelessness (currently housed in the Department of Human Services), as well as the Housing Division of the Office of Economic Development and Opportunity, now report to Fisher. Those agencies will eventually be folded into the new department, which will also oversee the affordable-housing plan and advise on the social impact bonds program (which will remain housed in the Department of Finance). The city is also planning to hire three deputy directors.
But although the creation of the Department of Housing Stability has been a topic of discussion since 2017, Fisher says, it won’t become official until Hancock issues an executive order (alternately, the voters of Denver could approve the new department by a citywide ballot initiative, as they will for the proposed Department of Transportation this November). City council will approve a budget in September or October. The department won't officially launch until January.
Meanwhile, the city’s programs that have to do with housing and homelessness will continue operating as they have been. “What this new department will do is elevate that [work], provide centralized leadership and authority for that, and be the home for those operations that we have across the city,” Fisher explains.
The announcement of the new department was timed just a few weeks before the mayoral election, and days after challengers in a debate knocked Hancock over homeless sweeps, funding, and even the language he used to describe homeless people. It was also just after the release of a report by Auditor Timothy O’Brien that faulted the city for lacking a strategic plan to address homelessness, fragmented collaboration with partners, and “uncertainty over who is ultimately responsible for leading this.” Those critiques echo the findings of other audits throughout the past few years, which have also knocked the city government for not collecting enough meaningful data. Fisher says the new department will address these issues by providing “a point of accountability for the citywide response to both housing affordability and for people experiencing homelessness.”
Cathy Alderman, the vice president of communications and public policy at the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, says that the city seems serious about addressing those issues. "We've long advocated for the city to set a more clear strategy around homelessness and housing, recognizing that that's very difficult to do when the resources for addressing these issues are spread out among different entities. The streamlining of this department has a ton of potential to really get the city on a clear track toward addressing housing and homelessness in a more meaningful way," she says.
"We haven't had a homelessness strategy in many years," Alderman adds. The last official comprehensive strategy ended in 2015, when the city's ten-year plan to eradicate homelessness came to an end (clearly without reaching its purported goal). Since then, Alderman says, Denver has implemented promising programs such as the social impact bond program, which houses formerly homeless people, and the revamped shelter expansion plan. "But nobody knows how those things work together," she says.
Other prominent homelessness advocates are skeptical that the change will make the city’s efforts to address homelessness more transparent, much less provoke any major change. “They’ve done several things in the last five years that look like they’re just trying to paint the house a different color without actually doing any real improvement or investment,” says Benjamin Dunning of Denver Homeless Out Loud.
Dunning points to the Office of HOPE, short for Housing and Opportunities for People Everywhere, which was similarly framed as a comprehensive initiative to address homelessness, affordable housing and gentrification when Hancock announced it in 2016. The mayor appointed Erik Soliván, a respected former Philadelphia Housing Authority executive, to lead the office. Soliván set to work launching programs that aimed to curb evictions, and helped craft the city's five-year affordable-housing policy. But in February 2018, Hancock moved the Office of HOPE into the Office of Economic Development and Opportunity, where it remains. Soliván resigned soon after, and a new director was never named. According to Fisher, the Office of HOPE "was effectively integrated into the Housing Division" in 2018, though the city's website still has a separate page on the office, which links to a list of thirty action items that are to be completed by 2017.
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Frustrated by what they see as the city's insistence on maintaining the status quo, Denver Homeless Out Loud is engaged in a campaign called 100 Days of Action, designed to hold the mayor and city council accountable for their campaign promises to address the issue. "The housing issue here in the city is the number-one issue, for the homeless community and for the housed community," Dunning says. Overall, his impression is that "the city seems to be less interested in housing the people who live here and more interested in building housing for people who have yet to move here." The renaming of the new department from "Housing and Homelessness" to "Housing Stability" also tells Dunning that "they're less concerned about getting people in housing that are currently on the street than they are about preventing people who are in housing now from going out to the street.
"That's not a bad thing," he adds, but he and Denver Homeless Out Loud would also like to see much more radical changes, especially those that stop the criminalization of homelessness, including a continued push to end the urban camping ban.
Alderman agrees that decriminalization is a missing piece in the overall approach the city has taken. "I think that we've really kind of missed the mark on how we treat people who are homeless," she says. "So the city has kind of doubled down on enforcement actions, with the camping ban and moving people around, instead of investing resources in getting people a safe space to go. ... That's just such a knee-jerk reaction to try to make the visible homelessness of people go away."
Alderman, who has been involved in discussions about the new department with Fisher and the city, sees the new department as a promising way that community partners can make their voices heard more directly. Fisher says that the city will now be taking an "outcomes-based approach" to providing services, which employs the common-sense strategy of, well, looking at the outcomes. But no major policy shifts coming as a result of the new department have yet been outlined.
Update, August 6: This article has been edited to reflect that city council will consider the budget for the new Department of Housing Stability this fall, not in January. It also previously misattributed a quote from Britta Fisher to a spokesperson; that has been corrected.
Update, August 8: We have clarified that the social impacts bonds program will remain housed in the Department of Finance, rather than being moved to the oversight of the new department.