Dozens of people at various town halls in August and September peppered the mayor with questions about drugs and addiction in his proposed micro-communities. They expressed concerns that the micro-community residents would continue to openly use meth, fentanyl and more. Johnston explained the micro-communities will have rules and open-air drug use and drug dealing would not be allowed.
Johnston repeatedly emphasized that by placing people experiencing homelessness in a dignified environment with food, restrooms, showers, laundry and mental health and substance abuse treatment, they become their better selves.
Johnston explained that current encampment conditions in Denver consist of flagrant drug use and solicitation. One woman pointed out that there is a shortage of mental health and substance abuse treatment providers. Johnston said the city is working to fortify that workforce.
No safe injection site
One woman told Johnston she hoped his plan does not include safe injection sites. Johnston said he does not think safe injection sites “are part of our solution right now,” acknowledging there is disagreement on the issue.
The mayor has exhibited boundless energy and a genuine desire to hear from Denver’s citizenry during his 18 community town halls. He has stood before a firing squad and defended his plan to house or shelter a thousand people experiencing homelessness by the end of the year.
One woman said the mayor should ask the mayors of Birmingham and Montgomery, Alabama, how they manage to keep their cities free of homelessness. Johnston responded that Birmingham actually used the exact same type of strategy he is proposing.
‘Why aren’t they being arrested?’
At some of the town halls Johnston empathized with business owners who have been impacted by the encampments. They report crime and fewer customers. Johnston said he served as CEO of a company at Union Station and had to deal with security concerns.
Some Denverites showed no sympathy whatsoever for people experiencing homelessness. “Why aren’t they being arrested now?” yelled a woman in the audience. “I think we’re putting the cart before the horse. If they’re homeless they’re there for a reason, why just put them in a house, I would like to see the help earned.”
Johnston explained that it’s not illegal to be homeless. He said studies show that housing someone before asking them to seek substance abuse or mental health treatment is a more effective way of serving the population.
A magnet for the homeless?
Johnston said 20% to 30% of people offered a mat on a gym floor accept shelter. But dress that offer up with a pallet shelter with a door, a lock, storage and restrooms, shower, and laundry service, and 80% to 90% will accept the offer. He told those concerned his micro-communities would attract more homeless people that 84% of Denver’s unhoused come from the metro area. “Doing nothing is the most powerful magnet,” Johnston said, explaining that would allow street encampments to flourish is squalid conditions with drug use and solicitation.
City Council member Serena Gonzales-Guttierez said she does not believe that anyone chooses to be homeless. “I don’t believe someone says, ‘I want to grow up and live on the street, I want to grow up and be homeless and unhoused, I don’t believe that.”