Denver, CO

Opinion: Denver's new homeless road: Housed quickly, helped back on feet

David Heitz

A lot of people have accused Denver Mayor Mike Johnston of making an impossible promise – to end homelessness in his first term.

It sounds like former Mayor John Hickenlooper’s “Dever’s Road Home,” they say, a failed 10-year roadmap for ending homelessness that spanned 2005 to 2015. But much has changed since Denver’s Road Home. In some ways, even bigger challenges exist now, starting with the fact the homeless population has grown 300% since 2015, according to Johnston.

The homeless population is also in the midst of a fentanyl epidemic. Record numbers of people experiencing homelessness are dying of overdose related to smoking “blues,” or fentanyl pills, on aluminum foil. Some people in the encampments are so addicted they break into houses and cars to feed their habits. As a result, NIMBYism in the city likely is even more pervasive than it was 10 years ago.

Denvers Road Home accomplished a lot

In reality, Denver’s Road Home accomplished a lot even if it didn’t end homelessness. Under the umbrella of Denver's Road Home, the city implemented pilot projects such as an arrest diversion program. Above all, Hickenlooper instilled a sense of urgency around solving homelessness. Johnston’s plan to house or shelter 1,000 Denverites by the end of this year does, too.

Housing 1000 people by the end of the year gives Johnston’s team a metric that likely will be accomplished. People will be housed myriad ways, from temporary hotel rooms to pallet shelters to permanent supportive housing.

Denver’s Road Home fraught with lessons

In a 32-page report in 2015, the people behind Denver’s Road Home admitted they didn’t solve homelessness. But they learned a lot, they said.

“Did homelessness end in Denver? No ,” the report reads. “However, it’s important to remember that the 10-year plan to end homelessness was a rallying point meant to raise community awareness, visibility and focus around this important issue. That means we needed an ambitious goal to aim for: ending homelessness. Although homelessness has not ended in Denver, or in any other major urban area in the nation, progress is evident.”

Denver’s Road Home legacy

As part of Denver’s Road Home, the city created a seamless infrastructure for providing homeless services. It also laid out important goals for the future, including:

• “We must maintain a sense of urgency around homelessness. Over time, passion can fade, and fundraising fatigue will creep in. We must work to re‑energize our efforts regarding the work.

• “We must make our story better known. Denver’s Road Home and every agency and organization involved in this effort must work continually to articulate what we do and why it is necessary.

• “We must continue to coordinate and collaborate. Partnerships are the foundation for us to get things accomplished. No single entity can solve this; it will take all of us.

• “We must adapt to and master changing conditions and be positioned to adapt to a changing landscape and other circumstances that seem uncontrollable.

• “We must work to inspire innovation. Denver’s Road Home can encourage avenues for innovation. We must look at how we can do things differently for better results.”

Innovation, openness

Johnston’s homeless emergency accomplishes many of these goals. Johnston has swiftly and energetically begun a citywide conversation around ending homelessness, as evidenced by 18 town halls. And his plan to move entire encampments together into sanctioned housing demonstrates innovation.

Johnston has even more resources than Hickenlooper did to throw at ending homelessness. Tens of millions of dollars in one-time American Rescue Plan Act funds have allowed the city to purchase hotels and more. More than $120 million in one-time ARPA funds has been directed at homelessness.

Political will, funding, urgency converge

One could also argue Denver is friendlier politically to people experiencing homelessness than it was during Hickenlooper’s era. The city has become a Democratic powerhouse and many of its residents hold liberal views toward homelessness.

In some ways it appears a perfect convergence is occurring for Johnston’s homelessness emergency: Funding, political will, and an urgency to make the city safer. Denver has reached a fork in the road when it comes to ending homelessness and has decided to take the route that houses people quickly and helps them get back on their feet.

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I've been in the news business 35 years, spending much of my career in editing roles at community newspapers in Southern California 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 proof that people can rebound from even severe mental illness with proper treatment. 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 in the Mile High City. You can email me news releases and story ideas at

Denver, CO

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