Denver, CO

New group criticizes Denver's 5-year plan to halve homelessness

David Heitz

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Two men play chess at a Denver homeless shelter operated by Denver Rescue Mission.City and County of Denver/Department of Housing Stability

By David Heitz / NewsBreak Denver

(Denver, Colo.) A new group critical of Denver's five-year plan to halve homelessness formed a non-profit to help provide permanent housing.

Housekeys Action Network Denver, led by Denver Homeless Out Loud founder Terese Howard advocates for permanent housing for people experiencing homelessness.

While Denver Homeless Out Loud also advocates for housing, that organization focuses on videotaping encampment sweeps. The group diligently documents every sweep to make sure the city obeys the rules of a lawsuit settlement.

Howard said her group, HAND, pounds the pavement collecting data about housing and people experiencing homelessness. The group is surveying the homeless to inform future efforts. Survey participants receive a $15 gift card.

Crews of three work for two weeks on street outreach. New volunteers rotate in and out. "We don't want to just do whatever sounds good," Howard said. She wants survey data to dictate the group's work.

Western Regional Advocacy Project, or WRAP, serves as the fiscal agent for HAND and allows the group to function as a non-profit. WRAP also will use the HAND survey results.

HAND will submit shelter testimony

Howard is composing a letter to the city auditor about homeless shelter conditions. The auditor plans to review the shelters later this year.

"Once we begin the audit, we will be unable to comment on the open investigation, but in preparation for the audit it is important to take in as much information from the community as possible," Taylor Overschmidt, director of communications for the auditor's office, said in an email.

He said several people shared information about bad shelter experiences.

Shelters cost $25,000 per person per year

Howard wrote a critique of the city's five-year plan to halve homelessness. Denver spends too much money on homeless shelters instead of permanent housing, she said.

In its five-year plan, the city's Department of Housing Stability said it spends $25,000 per shelter bed per year. Providing permanent affordable housing costs about $20,000 per person per year. That cost increases to $25,000 per person per year when you include the cost for supportive services such as case management and rental help.

HOST admits shelters are not a long-term solution to homelessness; housing is. But shelters do serve a need, HOST explains. “It takes many partners to build new affordable housing, including for profit and nonprofit developers, the city, state, and federal tax credits,” HOST communications and engagement manger Sabrina Allie said in an emailed statement.

Building housing takes time

“Due to the complexities, it takes many years to bring new units forward. So long as there are people experiencing homelessness in our community, there is a strong need to bring them to the safety of indoors where they can receive food, shelter, case management, services and supports to help lead to stability.

“In addition, we have found that we have greater success housing individuals engaged in the shelter environment as compared to individuals experiencing unsheltered homelessness.”

Struggling to meet housing need

At least 7,000 people live on Denver's streets, according to HOST.

The city needs about 57,000 more affordable rental units to help people who earn below the area median income.

"If we were to house at least the 7,000 people we know are homeless right now, and if we were to assume one quarter of these people need 'supportive housing,' it would cost $148,750,000," according to HAND's critique.

"In order to provide the average of $20,000 per affordable housing unit for the full 57,000, it would cost just over $1billion."

Denver's total operating budget for all city services is $2.1billion.

HOST knows more must be done

In an email, a representative of HOST said she knows more must be done. “In short, we agree that there is great need for significantly more affordable housing and that it will require federal assistance.

“Our strategic plan outlines what can be done within the resources we anticipate having over the next five years. We know it isn’t enough, and we acknowledged that very directly in the plan itself.”

HAND proposes slashing police, jail budgets

According to the critique, if Denver cut the jail and police budgets by 25 percent, the extra money could house everyone on the streets. "While these are big numbers for the city, they are not as big when you compare them to current city spending on police and jails," Howard said.

The 2021 Denver budget for police and jails was $588,354,653. Howard said that's enough to house more than half of the 57,000 people at or below 50 percent AMI plus the entire unhoused population.

Denver City Council is unlikely to cut the public safety budget based on previous votes.

Allie said she hopes HAND will engage with HOST. “We encourage those at Housekeys Action Network Denver to engage with us in how we can continuously improve and build a Denver that is healthy, housed and connected – for all of us.”

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I've been in the news business 35 years, spending much of my career in editing roles at local newspapers in Los Angeles, Detroit, and the Quad-Cities of Illinois and Iowa. Upon moving to Denver in 2018, I began experiencing severe mental illness due to several traumatic experiences. I became homeless on the street for about a year before spending time in the state mental hospital. I am living proof that people can rebound from mental illness with proper treatment, even after experiencing homelessness. I consider myself a lucky guy to live in a great place like Denver. I hope my writing reflects the passion I have for living here.

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