Editorial: Homeless services are coming to a Denver neighborhood near you — organize but, please, don’t oppose

Mayor Michael Johnston’s list of potential sites for temporary tiny home communities was met with swift backlash. Neighbors began organizing quickly to oppose the locations, and given the city’s recent track record of failure in rolling out new projects, we can’t say we blame them.

However, Denverites can give Johnston’s plan a chance and feel good knowing there’s an implementable long-term strategic plan behind the new mayor’s ambitious vision.

Johnston plans to rapidly move existing encampments off public rights of way, like sidewalks and medians, to 11 new small home communities built by the company Pallet or converted hotel sites. The city will then contract with service providers (a request for proposals is out) for mental health and addiction treatment, job training, and medical care to stabilize people and get them jobs and, eventually, permanent housing.

Anywhere between 1,500 and 2,500 people are living on Denver’s streets in squalid, inhumane conditions right now, and those encampments are unhealthy for our entire society in a way that transcends the inconvenience of trash and the stench of urine. Our communities must find a way to care for people like Josef Steele, a 28-year-old Army veteran, who returned Monday to living on the streets with a gun-shot wound in his back only a few hours after valiantly shielding his sister from a drive-by shooting at his encampment in downtown Denver.

Josef Steele, 28, camps at homeless encampment on Logan st. between 17th Ave. and 18th Ave. in Denver, Colorado on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023. Steele is one of two shooting victims at the site on August 21. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)
Josef Steele, 28, camps at homeless encampment on Logan st. between 17th Ave. and 18th Ave. in Denver, Colorado on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023. Steele is one of two shooting victims at the site on August 21. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

Johnston said he met with Steele and other veterans at that site before the city shuttered the encampment due to the threat of gun violence. He then saw some of them again at a nearby encampment only a week later.

“Those folks are just waiting for us to get them access to housing and so chasing them around from block to block does not add anything to the solution,” Johnston said, noting that the city is working to get Steele and other veterans connected with the Veterans Administration for services, a task made more difficult when a person is constantly moving from camp to camp.

We are never going to solve homelessness — especially not in the current economy full of low-wage jobs, soaring inflation, and housing costs exceeding even the incomes of upper-middle class families.

But we can ensure that individuals down on their luck, struggling with addiction or in the throes of a mental health crisis, have a safe, temperature-controlled environment to call home. Those capable of pulling their lives back together deserve every opportunity to recover financially and return to work and housing.

Johnston estimates between 85% and 90% of the unhoused people on Denver’s streets would accept services and housing, especially the low-barrier housing being offered where communities already formed on the streets would be moved together with their pets and friends and partners into a ready-built community that does not require sobriety or employment.

As grateful as we are for the critical work the shelters perform in and along North Broadway between downtown and Five Points, day shelters are not designed nor able to move people into sobriety, jobs and housing.

While we cannot guarantee the success of Johnston’s plan, it is a well-thought-out proposal with a model in Houston, Texas, that has seen some success. Of course, Denver is not Houston, and that city’s results may not meet our expectations. The Johnston administration’s plan may have holes that it has not identified — yet.

Even in its beginning state, Johnston’s plan has more promise than we have seen since these encampments first started growing in the summer of 2020. Yes, the city has opened two or three sanctioned campsites, and non-profits are running other tiny home villages, but Johnston is building a database of the unhoused to systematically move encampments to temporary housing, provide services, and then permanently close the area they inhabited to future campers.

Denverites should prepare for the impact of a tiny home or Pallet home shelter on their community. Now is the time to organize and hold the city accountable for providing 24-hour security at these sites, lighting, trash services, and critical mental health and addiction treatment for those in need at the facilities.

Neighborhood organizers should visit Denver’s existing “sanctioned campsites” and talk to neighbors about what works and does not work. Johnston urged people to visit Aurora’s Pallet home community and consider how it would impact their quality of life.

In short, we can work with the city, not against the city. Johnston has pledged to put one site in each of the 11 council districts. These sites will be a shared burden by the entire city. That is a welcome change from the status quo where zoning laws and neighborhood opposition have resulted in a small square radius downtown providing almost all of the services to our growing homeless population. Five-points and Lower Downtown are at capacity.

The rest of the city must do our part; that role is activism, not opposition.

Neighborhoods have a choice: live with the homeless encampments that have spread well beyond downtown or come together to help solve the problem. Not every proposed site is ideal for our unhoused neighbors, but the city is working hard to find locations that maximize community safety and Johnston seems willing to accept that some proposed sites may not work, but nearby alternatives may exist.

Johnston’s next hurdle will be presenting the budget for all of this to Denver City Council for approval. We haven’t seen the details of his budget plan — all of this will cost tens of millions to set up and millions upon millions more to maintain the service and facilities long-term.

If the mayor can wrangle the money, we hope it won’t be Denver residents standing in the way of our first real chance at improving conditions for the city’s homeless population.

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