In the second half of a mayoral forum, state Rep. Leslie Herod and businessman Tom Wolf disagreed on the best solutions to end Denver's homelessness crisis.
Wolf wants to house people in disused city buildings. Herod wants to utilize land owned by the city. Both agreed that housing people must be the priority, however, and agreed it's inhumane to walk over people camped out on Denver's sidewalks.
As one of his first actions as Denver mayor, Wolf said he would end encampments. Given how the city handled the influx of over 4,500 immigrants from the southern border, Wolf believes solving the homeless crisis is doable and long overdue.
"It should have been done three years ago," he said. "We had the South American folks that showed up and there was probably a population of 4,000 in the direst part of winter, and we immediately solved that."
He knows the answer is shelter, and believes the city can use "surplus city land and buildings" to house the homeless population in Denver. One example he pointed to is an old jail, which has heating, lighting and sanitation.
Repurposed buildings, such as the jail, offer a "much more attractive" place than a city curb, especially when it is 20 degrees below zero, he said, adding his position is a moral one but it's also immersed in his business acumen: Encampments drive down the number of occupied commercial lots.
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"To not give them shelter is the most inhumane, immoral thing that's going on in the city," he said. "It's crushing property bites... That's a compounding problem that will affect our entire budget."
Herod agreed the city must do something about the homelessness crisis but disagreed on solutions.
Rather than repurposing old buildings as Wolf suggests, Herod wants to build on land Denver owns.
Denver Public Schools and RTD own the majority of vacant lots in Denver, which are an untapped resource the city should take advantage of, she said.
"We can build on that land and we can get people housing," she said. "I know we can tackle this crisis head on, but it's got to start on day one."
Wolf did not believe homes could be built on "day one," drawing a distinction between housing and shelter.
Shelter, such as an arctic tent or tiny home, is not permanent, he said, and the city must focus on permanent solutions for those experiencing homelessness.
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Herod said the city can build tiny homes that "are more permanent" quite quickly, which can alleviate the strain on existing shelters. This also has the benefit of taking some pressure off of the permitting department, which Herod said needs to be overhauled.
Herod rejected the idea of using jails as homeless shelters, saying caring for the homeless is not the right job for Denver's police or sheriff's departments.
"They need to be going after violent crime, not sweeping people into prison," she said. "That's not humane either."