I am angry that our system has left so many behind and forced our neighbors into encampments, families to drive around with all of their belongings in their cars, and children to switch from school to school because they cannot find a stable place to live that allows them to consistently receive the basic education they deserve. I am pissed off our country has failed to address these issues for over a century and the tools available at the state and local level are insufficient. We can and must do better.
Measure 2B asks voters to raise the sales tax to support expanded supportive housing, improved shelters, and medical and behavioral health treatment. I am voting yes on 2B not because I believe it will solve the issue of homelessness in Denver nor that we have done the best we can to address the issue in the past. I am voting yes because it will provide needed investments to programs that have been proven to work and make a difference in the lives of our houseless neighbors.
For the past four years, the city of Denver has led an effort to provide housing and wraparound services to over 400 previously houseless individuals who, because of mental health or substance abuse issues, have frequently interacted with the criminal justice system. The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless and the Mental Health Center of Denver have been using a housing first model that Denver helped pioneer decades ago.
What are the results? Stably housed individuals. Dramatically decreased involvement with the criminal justice system. Safe spaces for individuals to access treatment and the support they need. Reduced taxpayer expenses for costly remedial services. And most importantly, a humane solution to a national crisis. If you don’t believe my rosy assessment, why don’t you read the reports of the longest and most rigorous evaluation of a supportive housing program ever been conducted in the nation?
If we are to accept what opponents of 2B have suggested, the program is a complete and utter failure because it did not solve homelessness in Denver. If we cannot solve it all at once, we should not do anything at all. Mayor Hickenlooper promised us homelessness would be eliminated in 10 years. It wasn’t, so all funding for housing and homelessness services must be a total bust, right?
Over the past decade, federal funds to combat homelessness have stagnated at a time when the affordable housing crisis has become much worse, due to rising housing costs known too well in Denver and the lasting repercussions of the Great Recession. Now throw in COVID-19 and the crisis is reaching extreme proportions. Was it wrong to think Denver could have solved homelessness before all of this occurred? I hope not, but I am more focused on how we can currently make progress on the issue instead of second-guessing goals of two decades ago.
By its very words, 2B helps to solve the crisis of now and invests in expanding lasting solutions to homelessness. No housing advocate likes putting money into shelters when it could be put into permanent housing. But even cities like Salt Lake City, which many people like to praise for their housing programs, have realized the current homelessness crisis requires investments in the more effective sheltering options that 2B would support.
As someone who believes our tax code should be less regressive, meaning it should not require middle- and low-income Coloradans to pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes, I am not keen on the greater use of sales taxes. Unfortunately, the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR) bans cities from using progressive forms of taxation and forces localities to choose between only regressive options. Our options are: Do nothing and watch homelessness get worse, or use the tools that we have available to us? It’s too bad that is the only choice Denver can make. I ask you to join me in the ongoing work to change our unfair and regressive tax structure. Unfortunately, that statewide constitutional change is not on the ballot for us in Denver this year.
Some have argued Denver’s response to homelessness has not been as coordinated and effective as it needs to be. I agree. That is exactly why it was so important the city of Denver finally created a unified housing agency that by its very design has accountability and outcomes built into it. Any additional funding for homelessness should be outcomes focused and transparent about results.
Our nation has turned its back on the underlying issues of mental health and substance abuse. It has ignored the need for greater investment in affordable housing and eviction protection. It is trying hard not to make eye contact with the workings families who are forced to live on street corners with others or live out of their cars.
Denver has an opportunity to do better. I do not guarantee 2B will end homelessness, but I can guarantee you it will get worse without it.
Tyler Jaeckel is the director of policy and research at The Bell Policy Center in Denver.