Homeless in Denver

FILE PHOTO: A makeshift shelter sits in the median of Colfax Avenue in Denver. Mayor Michael Hancock's proposed budget includes significant investments in housing homeless individuals. 

Denver's housing agency wants to quickly remove more than 220 homeless individuals from the streets by housing them in hotels, officials said during budget hearings this week.

The department also wants to house 150 or more through another housing program. 

Officials from the Department of Housing Stability laid out their case for more funding on Tuesday, even as some councilmembers worried about the sustainability of using one-time federal dollars for permanent programs. Some councilmembers also quizzed the agency about the perception of crime associated with hotels that serve the homeless population. 

In total, the department is requesting $253 million, with $35.7 million coming from the city's coffers.

Metro Denver is struggling to address homelessness, which jumped by 12.8% – from 6,104 to 6,888 – between January 2020 and January this year. Significant resources have been poured into tackling homelessness in the last few years. Just this Monday, the Denver City Council gave the greenlight to allocate $5 million to help purchase a hotel that houses some of the city's homeless population. Earlier, the council decided to allow another group to operate a homeless tent site in a city-owned parking lot and to set aside $2 million to provide monthly cash assistance to 140 homeless women and families. Indeed, Denver's homeless woe sits atop Mayor Michael Hancock's list of priorities. The mayor wants to devote $254 million from his budget to tackling homelessness.  

The housing department is seeking $46.5 million more to help find permanent housing. The lion's share of that amount, $46 million, will come from American Rescue Plan Act funding and is not permanent. The rest will come from the city's coffers, which will go toward homeowners association fine assistance and foreclosure legal assistance.

The department also proposed to purchase of two hotels at a cost of $23 million in ARPA funding.

The move is part of Denver's efforts to "decommission encampments" across the city, officials said. In addition, the department would use $20 million in ARPA funds to provide down payment assistance to help increase homeownership for minority residents.

But ARPA grants are one-time funds, and Councilwoman Kendra Black of District 4 asked whether the budget accounted for that. 

"We are putting forward (this budget request) with outcomes that we expect from a matched investment," Chief Housing Officer Britta Fisher said. "These are amounts we expect to be matched by the state."

The state shares similar objectives in reducing homelessness, according to Fisher.

The purchase of hotels to house homeless people isn't always popular with residents living near them, said several councilmembers, who raised security issues around the sites.

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Councilors said residents complained of a perceived rise in crime and other "incidents" near the converted hotels.

Fisher said the department is not seeing an increased number of incidents at shelters. 

"I'm not saying we'll never have incidents while we are serving people in crisis, but we are not seeing (an) increase of incidents from our guests," Fisher said. "We are spending more than we ever have before on uniformed personnel (as security)."

Fisher said security efforts include cameras, better lighting and more staffers at shelters. 

Meanwhile, the Department of Climate Action, Sustainability and Resiliency also sought to increase its budget by just under $575,000. 

Of that, $400,000 will help hire several permanent full time employees, officials said, adding the department will use $180,000 to buy services and supplies, while the remaining $5,700 will go to one-time purchases. 

"Combining all the work of our agencies, the Denver 2023 budget commitment to climate is hitting a new high of over $150 million," Grace Rink, the city's chief climate officer said. "We are increasing our investments in every category, and I truly believe that the people of Denver will see and experience the outcome in measurable ways."

Some of the efforts include nearly $65 million for energy efficiency and renewable sources, as well as a "moderate amount of funding" to study the viability of designing the Smith Road Maintenance Facility as a "net-zero" energy building.

Department officials said the city will break ground on 10 community solar arrays in the near future, with more to come in 2023. 

The city is also committed to almost $30 million in "sustainable mobility," which includes E-bike rebates, electric vehicle charging stations, adding bike lanes and improving sidewalks, officials said. 

All told, Denver has committed $155 million to "climate action," officials said.  

"CASR is judged on the city's emission reductions and statistics," Rink said. "But our real objective is to make life better for people ... When the people of Denver feel it, then we'll know that we're succeeding."