Pressure on Denver Mayor Johnston builds around homeless micro-communities

Pressure is building on Denver Mayor Mike Johnston as the city’s new leader barnstorms neighborhoods to sell his plan for temporary “micro-communities” as part of an initiative to house 1,000 homeless people by year’s end.

The pushback isn’t just from the neighbors of potential sites, who fret over perceived problems ranging from drug use to depressed property values. Advocates for the homeless argue that investing in shelters that fall short of long-term housing would be a misuse of precious resources.

And City Council members, worried about the cost of Johnston’s initiative, are pushing to make more information public about his administration’s funding plans.

Johnston’s town hall meetings in recent weeks have drawn some big crowds from residents curious about the new mayor’s approach. But since the release of a list of potential sites for micro-communities and other facilities in late August, suspicions have grown. Opponents of some sites have begun organizing.

“I feel like this is being backdoored,” said Frank Cefaratti, a builder who owns multiple properties in the Overland neighborhood, where one potential site is located. “There is no transparency.”

For now, the mayor is holding fast.

The administration’s goal is to hold “moving days” in November and December in which the city will relocate entire encampments of people to hotels, tiny home villages or other forms of shelter. Some of the tent settlements that have become common along streets, especially near the downtown core, will then be “decommissioned” and shut down.

Johnston, whose tenure has yet to hit the 50-day mark, acknowledges his plan could fail. But he said trying and falling short would be better than watching unsheltered homeless nearly triple, as it did from 2019 to 2023.

In late January, the latest point-in-time count found 5,818 people living unhoused in Denver proper, including 1,423 who were considered unsheltered, though that figure fluctuates.

“I could say, ‘Let’s do a blue ribbon commission, let’s study it for two years, let’s think about what might work and let’s come back with a plan,’ ” Johnston said Tuesday during a town hall meeting at the Central Presbyterian Church near downtown Denver.

“The reason why we declared the state of emergency is so we can get access to 1,000 units in five months (and) we can get people off of the streets and into housing,” he continued, noting the potential impact in a short time. “To give you context, if we do that successfully, that will be the single largest (percentage) decline in homelessness of any city in America in history. Full stop.”

Neighbors of some sites organize as city digests plans

Neighborhood leaders and residents have been scrutinizing the city’s preliminary list of 11 potential sites for communities since its release on Aug. 24.

Lisa Beauchamp, the co-chair of the Golden Triangle Creative District, said she had to scramble for information about two micro-community sites identified in the near-downtown neighborhood. District 10 Councilman Chris Hinds said he’s setting up a late-September meeting there, but anxious neighbors organized their own community meeting sooner, holding it Friday without the mayor’s presence.

“What resources do we have in the Golden Triangle that we should take on two (sites)?” Beauchamp said in an interview.

In Overland, residents have circulated a petition demanding the city abandon its pursuit of a potential micro-community on a narrow strip of land owned by the Colorado Department of Transportation in that oft-overlooked nook of south Denver. The unused patch sits behind a block of houses at 2301 S. Santa Fe Drive.

Several Overland neighbors made their feelings known at Johnston’s town hall Tuesday at Central Presbyterian, where he was joined on stage by Hinds and Councilwoman Flor Alvidrez, a new member whose District 7 includes Overland.

Not only do the residents oppose a micro-community on that site, they felt blindsided by its inclusion on the preliminary list. Even the timing of the meeting was suspect to at least one neighbor.

“You’re putting this in a blue-collar, working-class neighborhood and you start the meeting at 4:30 p.m.? Whose decision was that?” Cefaratti, the builder, said to a reporter after the meeting had adjourned. Johnston already had departed for another town hall.

Cefaratti said neighbors have seen surveyors and utility trucks on the property, suggesting it’s locked in. Doug Danger, who has lived in Overland for more than 30 years, brought pictures of fire damage he says people camping illegally had caused on that same property in the past.

He also tied the camping to break-ins at his home and workshop, the theft of a trash can and other items, and people using his property as a bathroom.

Johnston has hosted more than a dozen town hall discussions, and he’s heard a lot of suspicions voiced. On Tuesday, he rattled off reasons his administration sees micro-communities as a solution to the health and safety problems posed by encampments.

Unhoused people won’t need to go the bathroom outside if they have access to on-site restrooms, the mayor said. If they have secure places to store belongings and access to trash pickup, the neighborhoods won’t deal with the same messes. And people will be safer.

“On sites where we have done this, you’ve seen dramatic declines in criminal activity and dramatic increases in the actual satisfaction of the neighbors,” Johnston said. He was referring to previous tiny home villages and sanctioned tent communities, known as Safe Outdoor Sites, that opened under his predecessor, Michael Hancock.

Beyond the skepticism from some sites’ immediate neighbors, the mayor faces a wider population that wants street homelessness addressed but is still digesting the details of his plans.

A poll released Tuesday by the new Colorado Polling Institute found that among 414 Denver voters likely to participate in next year’s presidential election, about 34% approved of Johnston’s overall homelessness plans and nearly 20% disapproved. But 46% hadn’t formed opinions or were unsure. The poll had a 4.7 percentage point margin of error and was conducted in mid-August, before the potential site list came out.

Advocates say temporary homes are not enough

In the new micro-communities, Johnston hasn’t talked about using ice fishing tents, the primary form of shelter at existing Safe Outdoor Spaces. His administration instead is seeking tiny homes for some sites. At others, the city will rely on pre-fabricated, quick-to-assemble structures from the Washington-based company Pallet.

The City Council approved a $7 million contract to buy 200 of those structures, along with bathroom and community support buildings and additional purchase options, late last month. Each unit will have its own air conditioner and heater.

But that’s not good enough, argue advocates with the grassroots group Housekeys Action Network Denver, which recently sent a letter to Johnston.

With only so many dollars to go around, advocates with Housekeys and supporting organizations say Johnston is focusing on short-term solutions that will move street homelessness out of sight — without bringing about sustainable change. The Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition and the Colorado Poverty Law Project also signed the letter.

“There are many houseless people who do prefer micro-communities to the streets or shelters. We don’t want to discount that,” said Terese Howard, a Housekeys group member who was at the forefront of many disputes over homelessness with the Hancock administration. “But there are also a lot of people who don’t prefer that.”

She suggested Johnston was “falling short by not working toward actual housing and by focusing on visible houselessness rather than housing as a systemic problem.”

In her view, a better use of city money would be to rent available apartments and provide them to unhoused people at discounted rates, also known as master leasing. Johnston’s plans do include a plank that would help connect people living on the street, particularly those with government housing vouchers, to available rental units. But so far, his public comments have focused on micro-communities.

City Council members question the numbers

Johnston has faced questions of a different sort from other city officials.

District 5 Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer has twice voted against extending Johnston’s emergency declaration on homelessness, which he initiated his second day in office, and has said residents in the largely affluent eastern portion of the city that she represents are not interested in altering long-term land use plans to make room for micro-communities. Johnston has said the two are still discussing a potential site.

Even more supportive council members are showing signs of wariness under the rush to stand up sites before the end of the year.

During the council’s Aug. 28 meeting, Councilwoman Stacie Gilmore scrutinized the numbers around the city’s $7 million Pallet homes order.

Gilmore, who chairs the council’s housing and homelessness committee, knows more big asks are coming.

“I will vote affirmatively tonight on this bill, but we need much better cost-benefit analysis,” she said. “We at the end day do have limited dollars to go around and want to make sure that we are not only investing for today but for the long term.”

Hinds, whose urban District 10 bears a lot of the burden of unsheltered homelessness, also called for better cost-benefit information but said he’d become a believer in the micro-community model as a net benefit to neighborhoods. The city’s first two Safe Outdoor Sites opened in his district at the height of the pandemic.

“The 2023 conversation is a word-for-word repeat of the 2020 conversation,” Hinds said in an interview. “People were concerned about a lack of notice, they were concerned about the impact on the surrounding community, and six months later — after those Safe Outdoor Spaces were open and operating — they were saying, ‘Oh, this is great.’ ”

Alvidrez, the new District 7 councilwoman, also is optimistic and has equity on her mind, including a desire to see an equal distribution of sites across the city. As it stands, two potential sites are in District 7.

“I truly do believe that these communities will improve this area,” she said, adding: “In the town hall, it was very much ‘us vs. them’ — but it’s really about us, which is everyone.”

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