After a heavy defeat in May’s municipal election, supporters of the Right to Survive initiative vowed to continue fighting on behalf of Denver’s unhoused population — and they plan to keep homelessness policy front and center as Mayor Michael Hancock and a new city council prepare to be sworn in next week.
Activists with Denver Homeless Out Loud plan to hold a rally in Denver’s Civic Center Park at 8:30 a.m. Monday, July 15, just ninety minutes before Hancock is scheduled to be sworn in for his third and final term as mayor on the steps of the City and County Building.
“The mayor and city council candidates all made promises to ‘do better’ and address the crisis of mass homelessness in Denver when in office,” said the group in a statement announcing the rally. “Now is the time to keep those promises.”
Organizers will unveil a detailed plan called "100 Days of Action" at Monday’s event, kicking off several months of demonstrations, educational presentations and community meetings between now and the end of October. On every third Monday of the month, they also plan to hold “City Hall Takeover” events to keep up pressure on city leaders to act.
Organizers with Denver Homeless Out Loud and other groups backed this year’s Right to Survive initiative, which would have overturned the city’s urban camping ban and was overwhelmingly rejected by Denver voters in May. The initiative became the target of a $2.5 million opposition campaign, backed by business groups like the Downtown Denver Partnership and the National Association of Realtors, which urged voters to reject the measure under the slogan “We Can Do Better.”
Advocates want to see the city make good on that promise — starting with better housing policy. They point to data showing that about half of the city’s renters are “rent-burdened” — meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing — and that high percentages of new housing units skew toward people with high incomes and often sit vacant. In 2017, according to Census data, Denver had a vacancy rate of over 6 percent, representing nearly 20,000 units — six times the number of people experiencing homelessness counted by an annual point-in-time survey that same year.
“We tend to give developers free rein to build high-end housing,” says Benjamin Dunning, one of the founders of Denver Homeless Out Loud. “They’re willing to let a large portion of their units stay unoccupied, because they’ll just raise the rent to cover their losses. There’s money and resources available, but we don’t generate policy that actually takes us toward long-term solutions.”
"The biggest need is stock," he adds. "We need housing, [but] we're not building it in the areas where there's the greatest need and the greatest vulnerability."
While a repeal of the urban camping ban is likely off the table following the Right to Survive initiative's defeat, advocates still want to see action to “decriminalize homelessness” and protect the rights and dignity of unhoused people, including improvements to the city's shelter system.
“Those things are going to take years to come to pass, even if we do commit to them,” says Dunning of possible long-term housing solutions. “In the meantime, people are going to be out on the streets, so we have to have reasonable policy for how to deal with that.”
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As part of their new campaign, Denver Homeless Out Loud organizers plan to take all thirteen members of Denver City Council out to speak with Denverites experiencing homelessness within their respective districts.
"We want them to talk with folks out on the streets rather than having the message filtered," says Dunning. "Our job is to get the voice of the homeless community out in the general public. Too often, meetings are held when it's too late to get into the shelters, so it becomes very difficult for folks on the street to get to places where they can speak to power, so part of it is to get power to the places where people can speak to them."
Hancock has promised to make housing affordability a priority in his final term as mayor, and in April he announced the creation of a new Department of Housing and Homelessness to better coordinate the city's efforts. With several new faces on city council, organizers are cautiously optimistic that real progress is within reach.
"We’re more hopeful, but there is still a lot of resistance," Dunning says, stressing that improving city housing policy will require tackling tough zoning issues and standing up to powerful development interests. "A lot of the new city council members spoke about addressing these issues, and part of our 100 Days of Action is to motivate them to follow up on their campaign promises."