NORTH DENVER — When temperatures drop, our thoughts turn to the unfortunate men, women and children who can’t—or won’t—find shelter from the cold. Denver’s homeless population is growing, according to several sources, putting pressure on the City Council to implement solutions.
District 1 City Councilman Rafael Espinoza, who supports several new affordable housing projects in Northwest Denver, emphasizes the need for financially sustainable options going forward. “Throwing money at the problem isn’t the answer. We spent $ 63 million in the last ten years on the homeless problem, and now we have more homeless people. It’s not a matter of money but solutions. We keep investing in things that don’t address the problem.”
More than 10,000 people are homeless in Colorado, 6 percent more than in 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. In metro Denver, 3,700 people are homeless, according to this year’s point-in-time survey. About 861 of these are considered chronically homeless. “These numbers are hard to depend on since we’ve seen a rise in shelter numbers of more than 6 percent,” said Denver City Councilwoman-at-Large Robin Kniech, chair of the Housing and Homelessness Working Group, a collaborative city council group that brainstorms and develops recommendations for the larger council. “We know the numbers are greater than in the past. They are more visible on the streets.”
The challenge is the many different faces of the homeless in Denver, said Kniech. “They all face crises, but each person faces their own unique set of challenges, requiring a variety of responses. We have to develop solutions separately.
“We tend to think of the visible homeless people who experience mental illness or substance abuse. But many homeless people have employment and an income. Some families work, but they live in their car because of the shortage of low-income housing. They can’t get ahead to pay the rent.”
Kniech said legalized cannabis might play a role in rising homeless numbers. “I’ve heard anecdotal evidence from policy makers about a cannabis connection. We’ve seen more young homeless travelers who say they’re here because of marijuana. The larger picture is that everyone is moving to Denver, and the number of homeless mirrors the rise in population.”
Espinoza says the city’s social services burden is increased by the marijuana draw. “People come here for recreational marijuana and stay because we have good services. Many marijuana users are not Colorado residents who decided to change their lifestyle, but new people. It will be interesting to see if some migrate to California now that they offer recreational pot.”
In previous decades, homeless people were required to get sober before they could get government housing. But the high public cost of jail, detox and hospital stays changed this thinking. According to the Denver Crime Control and Prevention Commission, the top 300 heaviest users of these services cost the taxpayers more than $ 11.3 million each year.
Kniech and Espinoza agree that a “housing first” approach is both more cost-effective and supportive of homeless people. “How can you get sober when your living situation is so unstable?” said Espinoza.
“Clearly we need more affordable housing when people can’t find a place to live even with a rent voucher,” said Kniech. “The city is working with the Federal government and the state to address the problem.”
Earlier this year the city approved the Affordable Housing Fund, a plan to dedicate $ 15 million a year to build 6,000 affordable homes over the next ten years. On Dec. 5, Kniech was appointed as City Council Representative to the Affordable Housing Advisory Committee, which will advise the city on the use of the new Fund money.
“Some of the units will be for homeless people, and some of the money will be used for supportive services,” said Kniech. “We’ve already funded some projects and now we’re identifying the next generation of housing needs. We plan to complete one or two housing projects each year.”
According to Espinoza, several new low-income housing projects in Northwest Denver have tax-credit financing and will soon break ground. The buildings will provide 250 units combined. New workforce housing units will be constructed at 29th Ave. and Sheridan Blvd. and in the rehabilitated Kuhlman Building at 17th and Perry (formerly a convent). Espinoza explained that the workforce housing is intended for employed people earning between 60 and 100 percent of the Area Median Income (AMI).
Additionally, the Denver Housing Authority will build an affordable senior housing and urgent care project at Colfax and Raleigh. Eight for-sale affordable units will be available in the new Aria Denver development at 52nd and Federal Blvd. for buyers with up to 80 percent AMI.
Espinoza said a new overnight shelter is planned in the Sun Valley neighborhood in a warehouse near 8th Ave. Also in Sun Valley, the Denver Housing Authority plans to build 750 mixed-use housing units using a portion of a $ 30 million grant received from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. About 83 percent of Sun Valley residents live below the poverty line.
“Even though we’re building new housing in District 1, we’re losing affordable homes that are being demolished or flipped,” said Espinoza. “We have about 5,000 affordable homes in District 1.”
He wishes the new Affordable Housing Fund was bigger, and also a better deal for the city. “We need more: we need $ 30 million, not $ 15 million, and the city needs to be able to retain the assets,” he said. “These are publicly funded projects that end up being out of the city’s ownership. We’ve created an industry for developers to profit but we need a more strategic way to handle these finances. We need to own these buildings so we can provide housing in the future.
“Hopefully we can change the workings of the Affordable Housing Fund so that it doesn’t fall short like the 10-year Road Home program did. I don’t want to look at this in three years and realize we’re failing.”
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