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Mayor says Denver's focus helping the homeless should be on housing, not allowing urban camping

City spending $60-million for housing, services
Posted at 2:19 AM, May 02, 2019
and last updated 2019-05-02 04:20:57-04

DENVER -- Mayor Michael Hancock says Denver is making progress dealing with its homeless issue, but that much more needs to be done.

He said there are 3,500 homeless people in the Mile High City, according to the Point in Time survey, and that 700 of them don't seek shelter.

"I've reached out personally to talk to some of the homeless," he said. "What I've found, in an informal survey, is that 3 out of 5 are not from Denver."

When asked why Denver, Hancock replied, "They came here because of the services we offer."

He said those services start with the "housing first model."

"We recognize that we've got to find permanent support housing for individuals in our city," he said. "This year alone, we've been able to house 1,500 people in permanent supportive housing. We've also been able to house over 7,500 homeless in the last 7 to 8 years in the city of Denver."

The Mayor didn't bat an eye when asked if providing services was just an invitation to bring in more homeless.

"I think it's part of who we are as a city," he said. "It's our value system. We see vulnerable people in the streets, we move in to try to provide services to them."

Complex Issue

Mayor Hancock said homelessness is a complex issue, one that cities all over the country are facing.

"A lot of it starts with challenges around access to affordable housing," he said. "Some of it is an episodic challenge like loss of a job, separation or divorce, or fleeing a domestic violence situation."

He said there may also be familial challenges with parents, or mental health challenges.

"Whatever it may be, it renders people homeless," he said, "and it's exacerbated by the sweeping drug epidemic in our nation, in terms of opiates and methamphetamine, particularly in Denver."

Hancock said the Denver is investing more money in housing than the entire state of Colorado.

"We will spend $60-million just this year alone," he said. "Last year, we spent $50-million.

"I will say this, housing is not your typical municipal function," he said, "but Denver is one of those unique cities that is leaning in, saying, we have such a situation in our city that we have to allocate general fund money, and some of our other resources, to make sure we're providing housing for individuals."

The Mayor told Denver7 that spending money up front on housing may actually save money down the road.

He said without a roof over their heads, some people are more prone to commit infractions that could lead to jail sentences.

"Some of the things people might be cited for, urinating in public, whatever, those things tend to go away when people are stabilized in their own homes."

Urban Camping Ban

While he believes it's important to help those who don't have a roof over their heads, the Mayor also said it's important to have "guardrails," such as the urban camping ban.

"We have an urban camping ban for a reason," he said. "They're unsanitary, they're unsafe and they're unhealthy."

The city conducted a recent sweep, removing a large group of people that had been hanging near the Denver Rescue Mission.

Some of them moved into the Curtis Park neighborhood, setting up tents near 25th and Arapahoe Streets.

After spotting human waste in their alleys, several neighbors called City Hall.

"We asked for porta potties, trash receptacles and hygiene stations," said Eilie Feltman.

But the city didn't provide the requested items, for a reason.

"We don't want to encourage people to camp in place," the Mayor said. "If we brought in porta potties, that would only encourage people to stay in place."

Hancock said he has looked at other cities and how they handle the challenges of homelessness.

"You learn what to do and what not to do," he said. "One of the things I've learned is that you don't allow encampments to take hold in your city. You must get on them as quickly as possible."

The Mayor said Los Angeles now has 20 to 30 blocks of encampments near the downtown area.

He said the city decided to sweep out the homeless, without a plan to provide any kind of help, and "the court stepped in and told them they couldn't do that."

Initiative 300

Hancock said he opposes Ballot Initiative 300, which would do away with the urban camping ban.

"I just don't see anything humane about encouraging someone to sleep outdoors," he said. "We must be a city of compassion, working on housing issues, bringing people direct services around addiction and mental health, but we must also have guardrails. There have to be boundaries as to how we protect the well-being of the homeless, as well as the general public, and 300 is simply not the answer.

The Mayor said if 300 passes, "You will very possibly see encampments in our urban parks almost immediately, and in alleys behind your homes."

He called Initiative 300 "one of the more dangerous initiatives put before the people of Denver since I've been involved in politics."

Members of the homeless community support the initiative.

"Right to Rest," one of them yelled while walking past the tent city on Arapahoe Street, April 16.

One homeless man, who identified himself as Jamal, first name only, told Denver7 that he's getting tired of the city making them move every time someone complains.

"They woke us up around 2:45 in the morning and told us to pack up our stuff and move," he said, "while it was snowing outside."

Another homeless man, Wave, the street poet, said those who don't want to go to the shelters need to set up tents to protect themselves from Colorado's weather.

He said people have been camping outdoors for thousands of years, and he believes Denver should be more accommodating.

The Mayor says the city is constantly doing outreach to those individuals, but must also protect the general public.