Many Of Our Neighbors Need A Home. We Need To Make That Happen.
By Penfield W. Tate III
For the GPHN
Every day, at any given place in our city, you see them. People walking, shuffling around dragging miscellaneous items. Sometimes with shopping carts, sometimes multiple bikes with crates loaded on top of them, sometimes dragging kiddy wagons with sleeping bags and anything else you might imagine stuffed inside.
They stay in parks, on sidewalks, on parking strips between sidewalks and the streets — a pretty dangerous place to hang out.
We see and hear the anger they generate among those concerned, rightfully, for the health and safety of their own yards and neighborhoods, about the impact on their property values, and about the way it makes our city look and feel.
The situation has forced some of us to do things we would rather not do to avoid drug needles, trash and human waste in front of our homes and businesses.
We’ve roped and fenced off those parking strips, even paving them to make them less inviting.
Perhaps the most offensive tactic for me, are those who have piled boulders on the parking strips just to make it impossible for someone to put up a tent.
Yet these reactions are understandable. As much as we want to be charitable and kind, we also want to protect our property, and city.
Forced to the streets
Many people have been forced out of housing because developers have been allowed to run rampant, building only market-rate homes and rentals.
Developers buy units, minimally “remodel” them, then raise the rent and force people on subsidized income or making starting wages out of their homes and apartments.
The pandemic did not make the situation any better. This year’s point-in-time count showed 2,073 people sleeping outdoors in Denver — up from 1,561 in 2020.
All this illustrates a need to re-evaluate our policy on sweeps — in which police and other city officials bulldoze and forcibly disband the camps. This only serves to stress and aggravate the unhoused, and move the camps down the road to another block, another neighborhood.
I understand the necessity of keeping property clean and safe. But the time and money spent on sweeps is on a temporary solution to a systemic issue. We need to address the underlying problem. In 2021, the median household income in the metro area was $85,641. Most people without homes earn far less.
A recent study by the Common Sense Initiative says that Denver spends between $41,679 to $104,201 per year per person experiencing homelessness. That is a lot of money.
Even if you consider even the low end of that broad range, clearly the issue is not whether enough money is being spent on the problem. It’s whether the money is being spent wisely and competently.
The population of the unhoused is mixed and varied. It includes disabled veterans often suffering from PTSD, and women, some with children, who have been abused and threatened and forced out of safe housing.
It includes people living on the financial margins of, and people with drug or alcohol dependencies. It includes people with severe mental illnesses who do not have the tools, resources or capacity to address their plight.
Many are employed full-time but cannot afford housing, so they live in their cars or couch surf with family and friends. Finally, although it is difficult to accept, there are some who simply choose to live on the streets.
It can be done
So, what do we do?
Most experts believe the solution is more affordable housing. Indeed, many cities have adopted a “housing first” approach. This makes sense, since homelessness is, by definition, the lack of housing. And in high-cost cities like Denver, it’s also the lack of affordable housing.
Houston recently reported reducing its homeless population by 63 percent since 2011 by adopting housing first policies. That’s right 63 percent in 11 years. What would Denver look like with 63 percent fewer homeless people on the streets? And can we afford to wait 11 years to get there?
The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless advocates a housing-first approach. Their experience has been that affordable housing is a crucial first step, allowing many to then tackle more complex problems — from job placement assistance, to mental health, drug treatment and other social services.
In June, the Denver City Council passed three measures designed to begin to implement a housing-first approach. The measures will require developments with more than 10 units to designate between 8 and 15 percent as income restricted for people earning between 60 to 90 percent of the area median income. There will also be new fees on commercial and office space and sales.
Affordable housing advocates like Warren Village and Healthier Colorado praise the move. But more needs to be done.
We need to treat this problem with humanity and compassion, while assuring that all of Denver can enjoy our homes, parks and places of recreation. There has been too much talk and not enough impactful action. We should explore options for much larger temporary sites on available land — like out by DIA — or acquire or rent empty or underutilized buildings.
These should be places where the unhoused will have access to showers, laundry facilities, social services, emergency health and mental health care evaluations and treatment, drug and alcohol counseling and possibly treatment, where they can store their valuables and sleep in peace. In the wake of the pandemic and the large availability of office space, some buildings are being converted to apartments. We should explore incentivizing them to make some of the units affordable.
Layers of bureaucracy
To address the shortage of shelter beds, the city should immediately take steps to expand and creation of new facilities.
Many providers have complained about the city process where one agency conducts an evaluation and inspection only to be followed by another agency that inspects and provides a separate and sometimes conflicting report. These processes, and agencies, should be revamped, and streamlined.
Access to affordable housing in Denver, however you define it, has gotten dramatically worse over the past 15 years. Our rampant and unmanaged growth that many applaud has only fueled the situation.
Former Mayor Federico Peña challenged us to imagine Denver as a great city. If we want to be that great city, and not just imagine it, this issue requires the highest priority.
Enjoy your summer.
Penfield W. Tate III is an attorney in Denver. He represented Park Hill in the Colorado House of Representatives from 1997 to 2000, and in the State Senate from 2001 to February 2003. He lives in Park Hill.