West Denver Residents Want Lights, Fencing as Homelessness Rises | Westword

West Denver Residents, Kids Plead for Help as Homelessness Reaches "Most Concerning" Level

During a May 2 meeting, residents told Mayor Mike Johnston they were tired of seeing drugs, violence and nudity in public.
Ten-year-old Kyrie Mullen tells a room full of west Denver residents how he and his friends saw a naked person in public on their way to the town hall.
Ten-year-old Kyrie Mullen tells a room full of west Denver residents how he and his friends saw a naked person in public on their way to the town hall. Bennito L. Kelty
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While they didn't expect the mayor to solve all their problems in a day, west Denver residents, including children, told Mayor Mike Johnston at a town hall on Thursday, May 2, that he could at least provide more lighting and fencing to combat growing concerns with homelessness and drug use in their neighborhoods.

The gatherings, dubbed "Community Conversations," were planned as a way of talking to residents while Johnston unfolds his Citywide Goals 2024 plan, which aims to "build a Denver that is vibrant, affordable and safe for all," according to the mayor's office.

"We're having more issues with violent crimes here, and we want to construct opportunities that we can use here like lighting, economic help, with youth support and crime prevention through environmental design," Johnston told Westword during the meeting. "We usually get good feedback from people about what they want and need, and then we try to build a plan for how to do that at scale."

Although the town hall was planned months ago, Councilwoman Jamie Torres says it couldn't have happened at a better time. West-side neighborhoods in her district, such as Westwood, Villa Park, West Colfax, Sun Valley and La Alma, have been dealing with more visible homelessness and drug use, she notes, while small homeless encampments have been appearing along different parts of Eighth and Tenth avenues and the W Line light-rail route.

"There are several. We've had to deal with several near Tenth," Torres says. "Everywhere along the light-rail line has been pop-ups and tear-downs of camps. It's not new. It's kind of a 'it's back' situation."
click to enlarge Mayor Mike Johnston listens to a resident.
Mayor Mike Johnston listens to Myrna Morales, a Westwood resident who feels unsafe in her neighborhood and unhappy with local government, at one of his Community Conversations events on Thursday, May 2.
Bennito L. Kelty
Her district recently saw the sweep of about 140 people from an encampment near West Eighth Avenue and Navajo Street in the La Alma neighborhood. As she did on May 2, Torres stood alongside Johnston on April 9 at a La Alma town hall to reassure residents before that encampment was swept.

Because the La Alma encampment was too large for Johnston to offer housing to its residents, many of them moved to other encampments, including one in Baker.

According to Torres, homelessness in the area has increased as Union Station and parts of downtown were cleared of homeless individuals and encampments during the past few months.

"A lot of that just made its way down the light-rail line," she says. "As visible as drug use and overnight camping is right now, it's never been that bad. We've seen hints of it since COVID started, but this is where I appreciate the timing of this meeting, because it's been on everybody's mind who lives around here, who works around here."

The mayor has hosted three Community Conversations, but the one centered on West Colfax had the largest crowd yet.

"That this is the biggest turnout of these events doesn't surprise me. I think I have a lot of engaged people, really committed people. They really want to make sure something is done about this," Torres says. "It really is necessary for the mayor to see and hear how visible Denver's drug problem is in this part of town."

Unlike Johnston's House1000 town halls in 2023, the Community Conversations feature only a few minutes of Johnston speaking before the residents break off into groups and team up with a city employee to write down their concerns, which are then shared over a microphone with the whole room.

Outdoor lighting was a popular request across groups, with residents saying they feel unsafe during darker hours, especially in Pablo Sanchez Park and green areas around the Lakewood Gulch Trail, which runs along part of the W Line.

A group of children in orange and yellow vests between the ages of five and ten biked about a mile to the community discussion from the Sun Valley Youth Center, a nonprofit that offers after-school and summer programs. They told the room they saw a naked person on the way before sharing stories that made the crowd gasp and shake their heads.

"I've seen homeless people fighting," said a boy named Nathan. "And one took out a gun and shot the other, and my thing is to add more police on streets and campus."

"I saw people doing inappropriate stuff with each other," ten-year-old Kyrie Mullen told the crowd. "So, one idea is to kind of cut off from places that people cannot go to and stuff."

"I feel very scared, because I know that every day, another crime is happening," a little girl said.
click to enlarge Mayor Mike Johnston talks to Denver residents.
Residents asked Mayor Mike Johnston for more lighting and fencing while they deal with increased homelessness and drug use in their neighborhoods.
Bennito L. Kelty

Johnston didn't respond to the comments, at least not from the front of the room. His staffer promised at the end of the meeting that they would take the feedback with them and follow up if necessary.

Johnston's office has planned Community Conversations through 2024. The May 2 event, at the Mulroy Opportunity Center near Paco Sanchez Park, attracted upwards of ninety residents and a couple dozen city officials, including police, sheriff's deputies and staff from various departments.

Myrna Morales, a Westwood resident who spoke directly to the mayor, says that she wasn't satisfied with the discussion but didn't expect much coming in. She thought the best she could do was ask for reasonable goals, such as streetlights and fencing, but she feels like her Latino neighborhood always gets overlooked. 

"The things they can change are like public lighting. I had to talk about general problems in the Westwood neighborhood, because it is something simple to resolve," she says. "I want to see that my community is really treated with equality. We're in the 21st century, and we have the same problems."

Torres appreciates the mayor visiting her constituents, but she says she'll wait until she starts seeing action from Johnston regarding the problems discussed at the meeting before giving a thumbs-up to his Community Conversations and Citywide Goals 2024 plans. 

"I appreciate being able to gather everyone to talk about this all together with city departments," Torres says. "But it remains to be seen if it's a good plan or if it's wishful thinking."
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