How Denver Is Failing to Address the Housing Crisis

“When trying to find solutions to the housing crisis, it seems the only approach has been everything but housing,” said Benjamin Dunning with Denver Homeless Out Loud (DHOL). The advocacy group recently published its report, “Swept to Nowhere: Experiences and Recommendations from Unhoused People During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” which found that over 70% of homeless people return to a location they were displaced, or “swept,” from – an effort that cost the city over $400,000 last year

Dunning said the housing crisis in Denver, and the country for that matter, traces back to the ’80s when the budget for low-income housing was cut by nearly 90%, largely to fund more military endeavors. It left America’s expanding cities and vulnerable poor overburdened while handing housing off to the hands of for-profit, wealthy real estate developers. He argued that every change in the city’s zoning code since has been tailored to support high-end, expensive developments. “The tents are just the tip of the iceberg,” said Dunning. “They [city government] are cruel and stingy towards homeless people and they refuse to meet the needs of the city.” 

Photo courtesy of Denver Homeless Out Loud Facebook.

When the average house on the market runs over half a million dollars, it’s only natural for a housing crisis to occur. In its 2020 State of Homelessness Report, the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative found that over 30,000 people in the metro area are experiencing homelessness, citing a lack of affordable housing. 

“Poor people are largely associated as being inherently lazy, drug-addicts that deserve what is happening to them,” said Dunning. He argued that dehumanizing rhetoric around the poor – combined with a general lack of awareness on the issue on behalf of the public – is why the city can silently “sweep” people off the streets like they’re disposable. “We are so quick to bury history in the news that we are covering.”  

Earlier this year, a group of residents in Park Hill sued Colorado Village Collaborative (CVC), the City of Denver, Park Hill United Methodist Church, Pastor Nathan Adams and Zoning Administrator Tina Axlerad, over a proposed safe outdoor camping site that would house 40 homeless people. That lawsuit was dismissed by Denver District Judge A. Bruce Jones, but other groups are in on similar efforts. 

Safe and Sound Denver, a neighborhood advocacy group, plans to introduce a repeal measure to the city’s Group Living Amendment – which went into effect last February – as a ballot initiative this November. The group mentioned concern about the amendment’s inconsideration to nearby residents and an impending “failed policy,” citing cities like Portland, Seattle and San Francisco that have introduced similar measures. 

The amendment, which officially legalized and increased the number of unrelated adults permitted to live in a house up to five, made an existing and widespread housing dynamic legal. It also provides an affordable and equitable option for housing, according to the City of Denver. 

Photo courtesy of Colorado Coalition for the Homeless on Facebook.

Safe and Sound has been keen to note that homeless people, in overwhelming numbers,  struggle with some kind of mental health issue or addiction. Some argue that those problems have been taken out of context to encourage negative stereotypes about poor people being inherently problematic. 

“They don’t want to see their property values go down in their neighborhoods,” argued Ean Tafoya, head organizer of Headwaters Protectors, an advocacy group that provides compassionate water and trash services. “There are ‘everyday’ people in your neighborhood that do drugs and similar things that homeless people are doing,” explained Tafoya, “but because these are homeless people, they get criticized more heavily for it and it gets fixated on.” 

According to Dunning, city efforts – aside from accepting trash collected by volunteers and community organizers – continue to circle the only viable option, which is available housing.  

Remember when Denver replaced police officers with healthcare professionals to respond to crisis calls last year? 

The city launched the Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) pilot program in June 2020, when social justice and police reform were at the forefront of every headline. That six-month program was successful, but Mayor Michael Hancock chose to introduce it as a downgrade version of itself. The Denver Street Enforcement Team, announced last month, will replace police officers with unarmed civilians in crisis related to homelessness.

“We are investing in this approach, adding $1 million to continue the expansion of the STAR Program so people in crisis are met with behavioral health professionals instead of uniformed officers. A new civilian Street Enforcement Team will address lower-level infractions, and we are working on a new Assessment Intake Diversion Center. This AID Center will create an additional alternative response to the criminal justice system. On calls where a uniformed officer may be required, we can better guide individuals with mental health or substance misuse challenges away from being booked into jail, and instead connect them to more appropriate services,” said Mayor Michael Hancock during his State of the City address on July 26.

To qualify for a job with the Street Enforcement Team, applicants must have “one year of experience in regulation compliance, enforcement, safety, community outreach, customer service or similar experience,” according to a recent job posting. ​​The wage range for a team member position is $18.94 – $28.41. 

“You get the mall cop kind of thing,” said Dunning. “These are going to be people who are uninformed about trauma and the community and just criminalize people further.” The team is not permitted to make arrests but can issue citations and enforce rules on behalf of the city. 

“Our biggest concerns are that this continues to be further criminalization of homelessness,” explained Tafoya. “We believe the justice system is already at its limit and we don’t believe that it can solve an economic problem. We’re concerned for the safety of individuals who are going to be issued citations from people pretending to be their friends.” 

303 Magazine, Brittany Werges

Denver community fridge in RiNo. Photo by Brittany Werges

Still, neither Tafoya nor Dunning see the city’s new program as a step in the right direction.

Dunning, who’s been advocating for homelessness for years in Denver, points to non-government, citizen-organized efforts that take the issue into their own hands. For one, mutual aid groups have been expanding since the pandemic, like Headwaters Protectors, Feed the Streets, Cats not Cops and community fridges that began popping around the city last fall. 

READ: Community Fridges in Denver Address Some of Our City’s Biggest Problems

Now, the Denver Basic Income Project plans to launch this upcoming September and will begin studying the effects of universal basic income on Denver’s homeless population. 

The project will study the impacts of no strings attached direct cash payments to homeless individuals. One group will receive a direct payment of $6,500 and an additional $500 for 11 months after, the second group will receive a monthly stipend of $1,000 for 12 months. The third group will receive 50$ a month for 12 months in a comparison group.

Dunning says a project like this is overdue, but hopes it only proves what he’s known all along. “This gives folks money they need with no questions asked. When they’ve done this with other studies, we’ve seen that people use the money to literally just take care of themselves,” said Dunning. 

It’s a start, said Dunning, who hopes citizen-led initiatives like these can boost the public’s perception, while changing the dialogue about homelessness and poverty. “People are people, they have stuff that happens in their everyday lives. They don’t deserve to be in a constant state of fear or punishment for it.”