By David Heitz / NewsBreak Denver
(Denver, Colo.) Denver’s Department of Housing Stability, created in 2019 to house people experiencing homelessness and prevent others from becoming homeless, proposes a quarter of a billion-dollar budget for 2023.
The City Council discussed how to spend the money during a budget hearing Sept. 27. Members asked several questions of Brita Fisher, director of the department, known as HOST.
Councilmember Stacie Gilmore told Fisher the city has many teams dedicated to homeless outreach, but they don’t seem to talk to one another. She would like to see computer software that allows 911 dispatchers to pull up information about what services are available or have been offered to people who encounter police.
She expressed dissatisfaction that sometimes the alternative police response program, STAR, ends up at the scene with police. It is up to 911 dispatchers to decide who to send out on calls. “I don’t want officers coming out with STAR vans,” Gilmore said. “I don’t want officers parked down the street from STAR vans.”
Fisher explained when homeless people access services data is entered into the Homeless Management Information System. But that information “cannot be shared with public safety and there are many good reasons for that.”
Councilmembers share concerns
Councilmember Kendra Black told Fisher there are several homeless encampments near where she works. She said she sees police interacting with them frequently, but not alternative police response teams like the Early Intervention Team. Fisher explained that police officers’ uniforms make them highly visible; case workers and mental health professionals often wear plain clothes. She assured Black the alternative response teams are hard at work.
HOST also wants to create a public health “hot spot” team. A group of public health professionals would locate areas in the city where there may be high overdose risks or Hepatitis C infections. They would then work to mitigate those risks.
Councilmember Debbie Ortega, who is running for mayor, wants to find a way to track how much money is spent on each homeless person. She said it makes sense to disburse some money for homeless services to neighboring jurisdictions. Ortega reasoned all the homeless people are coming to Denver because it has such great services.
Purchase of hotels planned
Part of HOST’s plan for 2023 is to purchase two hotels totaling 270 rooms with up to $25 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds. The hotels initially would serve as shelters but would eventually be converted to permanent housing with wraparound services, like Fusion Studios at 3737 Quebec, a former Quality Inn and Suites. Colorado Coalition for the Homeless owns Fusion.
Councilmember Amanda Sawyer asked if the Safe Outdoor Space program would be expanded in 2023 or 2024. She is not a fan of the program, which places people in fishing tents in legal campsites. A fire roared through one of the sites last month.
Fisher said the program would remain at the same level of funding as 2022. Four outdoor spaces currently are operating in the city.
RV buyback program raises eyebrows
A proposed “RV buyback” pilot program caught the attention of several council members. The city would lure people living out of their RVs into housing with rental assistance.
Fisher said all cities on the Front Range are battling problems with RVs parking and setting up camp. No clear solution has emerged, but many cities have looked to Oakland, Calif. For direction.
“Over the past few years, city officials have enacted or floated a range of policies recognizing the reality that a growing portion of the unhoused population is living in vehicles,” the Oaklandside reported in May. “Some of those policies create sites for RV dwellers to park permanently, some allow them to set up on private property, and others force them off the streets.”
Budget hearings allow the council to learn why city programs may be expanded. The council still can modify the budget, which came from the mayor’s office, before approving it.