Denver is looking for ways to provide more housing space for the homeless and more help finding and maintaining permanent housing while cracking down on illegal settlements.
The solutions, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock said on Wednesday, include buying more hotels or motels to convert into shelters or increasing the number of legalized settlements, of which the city now has two.
“We proved during the pandemic that 24-hour shelters work,” Hancock said at a press conference at the newly opened 48th Avenue Shelter. He later added that the pandemic gave the city an opportunity to reconsider legal encampments, also known as safe outdoor spaces, which he initially opposed.
But “unauthorized encampments are not an option,” Hancock said. He plans to launch a “civilian enforcement team” to pursue the controversial eviction from these camps around the city.
“The keys to the house have a lot more power to change a life than the tents,” he said.
Denver’s homeless population is estimated at around 4,171, according to the latest full tally for 2020.
In May, the city announced it would purchase a 94-room hotel in the city’s northeast to house up to 200 people. Housing director Britta Fisher said on Wednesday the city was on schedule to seal the purchase and open it as a shelter by the end of the year.
Fisher’s team is already looking to buy more properties for the same purpose, although it’s unclear exactly how many the city might buy. Part of the challenge is finding owners of vacant hotels, motels or apartment buildings who are willing to sell their properties to the city.
“There haven’t been a lot of them on the market,” Fisher said.
Additionally, Hancock and Fisher have promised safer outdoor spaces will be on the way, but it’s unclear exactly how many or when they might come.
The promise marks a substantial about-face for Hancock, who has long opposed the notion of sanctioned encampments and stressed almost exactly a year ago that safe outdoor spaces would be temporary. Since then, two of the four that opened have remained – one at Regis University and one at Park Hill United Methodist Church; both can hold up to 100 people.
Cole Chandler, executive director of the Colorado Village Collaborative, said his nonprofit had licenses to operate the two secure outdoor sites until the end of 2023. To grow, however, Chandler said he would have need more city money and more goods. owners willing to host the sites.
To supplement existing shelters and safe outdoor spaces, Fisher said Denver will distribute millions of additional dollars in municipal, state and federal money for rental and assistance to utilities. The city’s first round of emergency rent assistance has been around $ 22 million, while the second round is close to $ 27 million, she said.
At the same time, however, city crews have stepped up their costly practice of cleaning up – or sweeping up – illegal settlements, a practice that medical experts have called inhumane and ineffective. Over the past six months, teams in Denver have emptied more homeless settlements than in 2020.
Hancock said he sees no conflict between the city’s quest for more shelter and services and its efforts to enforce the city’s controversial ban on urban camping.
“There are arguments on both sides of it,” Hancock said of the sweeps.
Hancock said he would create a “civil law enforcement team” to replace police officers during sweeps that do not require a law enforcement presence. Team members would have the option to issue citations, according to Evan Dreyer, the mayor’s deputy chief of staff.
The strategies for homelessness that Hancock outlined on Wednesday are part of his three-pronged approach to help Denver recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
In April, he announced he will come up with a $ 400 million bond measure to fund projects in the city and create new jobs, though his administration has yet to say what work the bond money will fund – which seems “backward” to some economists. And in May, Hancock said he would increase the police presence in parts of the city to tackle a recent wave of violence, and that he would get officers to partner with mental health care providers and to community organizations during these patrols.