Denver, CO

Homelessness 'most critical discussion' in Denver, councilman says

David Heitz

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A city crew sweeps a homeless encampment.Denver Homeless Out Loud

By David Heitz / NewsBreak Denver

(Denver, Colo.) Denver City Council member Paul Kashmann said this week that homelessness is "perhaps the most critical discussion that we are having in the city right now."

He made his remarks as chair of the Safety, Housing, Education and Homelessness Committee during a meeting Wednesday. The committee invited Colorado Coalition for the Homeless CEO John Parvensky to discuss homelessness.

Parvensky's organization owns and manages 20 apartment complexes around the Denver metro. It also distributes housing vouchers that allow people experiencing homelessness to live in traditional housing stock.

The Coalition began in the 1980s as a two-room clinic. Today, the Coalition serves thousands of clients annually in its modern Stout Street Health Clinic.

City Council President Stacie Gilmore, who also sits on the committee, said the Coalition's successes aren't celebrated because they're invisible. "They're housed," she said.

Parvensky said people ask him if they're doing such an excellent job housing the homeless, why are so many still are on the street? He tells them that if the Coalition didn't exist, there would be another 4,000 people experiencing homelessness.

Coalition needs to scale up

The problem is that the Coalition is not working at the scale needed to house everyone, Parvensky explained. It takes a lot of money, but he said the city needs to invest more in affordable housing as infrastructure.

"It costs $600 to $700 per unit just to keep the lights on and if you add security, it's even higher," he said of the Coalition's properties. Some, such as Fusion Studios, have 24-hour armed security.

The City and County of Denver invested about $40 million in Coalition housing and services during a 10-year period, Parvensky said. Most of the Coalition's funding comes from the federal government via grants, Medicare and Medicaid.

In the past few years, the amount the city provided skyrocketed due to pass-through funds for COVID-related housing such as hotel and motel vouchers.

On any given night, the Coalition houses 500 families, Parvensky said. "Families often are not front of mind" when people talk about homelessness in Denver, he said. "They're hiding, sleeping in their cars, riding RTD."

Parvensky said billionaire Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos recently donated $5 million to the Coalition for housing families.

In a perfect world

Kashmann asked Parvensky, "You're king of the world. What do you change?"

Parvensky said a mental health crisis exists in Denver. The psychiatric needs of people experiencing homelessness aren't being met. He said there also needs to be reform in a law that allows police and paramedics to place people on 72-hour mental health holds.

As it is now, "Some are discharged after 72 minutes," Parvensky said. It doesn't provide enough time or motivation for clients to address their mental health needs and get connected to care.

Providing mental health care is one of the Coalition's most significant programs. The organization employs psychiatrists, mental health nurse practitioners, psychological counselors and caseworkers.

Parvensky said the cost of Denver housing is so high some of his employees have trouble finding a place.

How long will homelessness be a crisis?

"How long will this go on?" Kashmann asked Parvensky about the homelessness epidemic. "The high cost of housing is the biggest predictor," Parvensky answered. "Focus on building more affordable housing."

He said the number of homeless on the street increased when the city cracked down on encampments by the river. He said there are more homeless than available shelter beds, despite the misconception that the opposite is true.

City Council member Amanda Sawyer asked whether the Coalition has sufficient capital reserves for building maintenance. He said about $300 per unit per year is set aside for maintenance.

"That would replace a dishwasher, not the roof on an apartment building," Sawyer responded.

Parvensky said the properties could use other Coalition money if the maintenance budget becomes depleted. "Some of the clients that we house have greater wear and tear on the buildings," he said.

Addicted get sober in Fort Lyon

City Council President Stacie Gilmore praised a program the Coalition has in Fort Lyon. It supports people experiencing homelessness while battling addiction in a rural setting. She wondered how many of the 200 housed in the complex came from Denver.

Parvensky said about half come from the city itself, with another quarter from the metro area and another quarter from other spots on the Front Range.

Gilmore would love to see Fort Lyon expanded "so people can begin that journey to recovery."

Parvensky agreed. "People turn to alcohol and drugs to cope with living on the streets."

Denver's homelessness problem is being addressed, Kashmann said, but the city needs to increase its efforts.

"It sounds like we need to scale up ten times or twenty times," Kashmann said. "It doesn't sound like there's not a particular trick in the bag that we're not using."

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I have been in the news business more than 30 years, spending much of my career at some of the best local newspapers in the country. Today, I report on Denver City Hall, homelessness and other topics for NewsBreak, much like I did in my twenties covering Newport Beach, Calif. for the Daily Pilot. I consider myself a lucky guy to still be doing what I love after so many years.

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