Vince Bzdek

The weather is finally warming and that means the homeless camps are popping back up in downtown Denver, as perennial as the tulips in Civic Center Park.

A colleague who hadn’t been downtown for some time was shocked by the hundreds of homeless tents and boarded-up buildings in downtown. “It looks like a third world country,” he lamented. “How did we let that happen?”

The return of the camps is a good time to do an accounting of the money Denver is spending to address homelessness and what we’re getting for that money.

By some estimates, in 2020 alone Denver spent upwards of half a billion dollars on its housing situation.

You can quickly get to the half a billion number by adding up the budgets of the Denver Housing Authority, $267,191,908, which is spent on affordable housing for low-income and homeless residents; the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, $75,378,050; the Department of Housing Stability (HOST), $72.4 million; Catholic Charities, $58 million; and the recently passed Measure 2B, which increased the city sales tax .25 cents to fund $40 million more for homeless projects.

Add it all up and that’s $512 million in one year, and that doesn't count all the efforts by smaller non-profits and other private groups. 

And that doesn’t count the cost of policing the homeless population, whom Denver police officials points out account for a much larger portion of crime in Denver than their numbers would suggest.

Homeless residents account for “.6 percent of the population, less than 1 percent of the population, yet they are at 27-30 percent of total arrests,” Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen told me.

“They are about 7 percent of the homicides,” he added. “If you’re .6 percent of the population but you’re responsible for about 7 percent of the homicides, that’s a pretty big number.”

“The aggravated assaults are high as well. “

Add into the equation the salaries of law-enforcement officers who arrest and move homeless people for offenses such as trespassing, public intoxication or sleeping in public places, as well as the cost of jail stays and hospital visits, and a chronically homeless person costs taxpayers an average of $35,578 per year, according to a study by the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

That’s about $2,964 a month, which is a lot more than I’m paying for housing each month.

So what’s our return on investment for a half a billion bucks?

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Over the past five years Denver’s homeless population increased by about 15%, from 3,631 in 2016 to 4,171 in 2020, according to point-in-time surveys.

This year, the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative cancelled part of its point-in-time surveys and delayed the rest, so we don’t yet have an accurate count of what impact coronavirus had on the homeless population.

But service providers have told different media outlets that they have seen a significant increase in the number of those living on the streets in tents during the pandemic.

So the problem is as bad as it has ever been. After so much money and effort, it’s really hard to say that we’re moving the needle in the right direction as a society.

And yet Denver increased the budgeted funding for housing and homelessness in November via Measure 2B despite the city's massive revenue projection shortfall because of COVID.

In 2020, Denver set up two safe-camping sites to serve 100 homeless residents, and plans to open a third in April.

In the first eight months of 2020, the city opened or allocated money to open 900 affordable homes, and HOST struck agreements with developers to create 100 more affordable-housing units.

There are plenty of agencies that have been doing ‘housing first’ for years, which is the strategy of getting homeless residents into some sort of housing as the first line of defense, and then addressing employment, addiction and mental health issues after.

They are helping people for sure, but that doesn't mean they have solved homelessness.

And now a lot of people – compassionate, caring people - are sick and tired of the persistence of the problem. I have been getting an earful from frustrated residents, city officials and business owners in Denver these days as tourist season approaches.

Homelessness has been a top-priority issue in the city for two decades, and politicians continue to throw money at the problem to show that they are caring, they are compassionate, they are sympathetic, they are focused on the problem.

But after another half a billion spent a year, how compassionate is it to leave 4,000 people sleeping in the street?