Last year, 2020, was among the most challenging years many of us have experienced, with new crises like the pandemic and economic collapse colliding with persistent problems like racism and …
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Last year, 2020, was among the most challenging years many of us have experienced, with new crises like the pandemic and economic collapse colliding with persistent problems like racism and homelessness. To govern through these challenges, my focus has first been to ensure that Denver maintains ongoing services and policy efforts that began before the pandemic, and that remain important. Second, I’ve advocated for a science-based and equitable emergency pandemic response. Third, which was the subject of my July 2020 column, is to ensure we rebuild better than before.
All three of these priorities had to be addressed simultaneously. Here are a few highlights:
Re-imagining more effective and racially-just public safety
STAR is a mental health and EMT response team that launched a limited central-Denver pilot in summer 2020 as an alternative to police for those in mental health or substance abuse crises. Several colleagues and I led the effort to increase funding for the STAR program in the 2021 budget, and we succeeded in moving the program under the oversight of the mental health experts in the Department of Public Health. While an initial increase was won for 2021, I will fight for additional supplemental funding to further expand the program based on forthcoming analysis and input from stakeholders.
I get more inquiries from constituents in Capitol Hill than from any other neighborhood about how to help those experiencing a crisis without calling the police. STAR is the answer, but the hours are limited. Additional resources will help us expand those hours and deliver these services to more neighborhoods across Denver.
For now, STAR operates from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, and can be reached by calling 720-913-7827.
The city estimates that STAR is serving less than one half of one percent of all the 9-1-1 calls that could benefit from this response. So, expanding it could also free up police time to better address more serious crimes.
I also worked with Denver’s police oversight body, the Citizen Oversight Board, to secure a full-time staffer to support their police accountability work.
Helping those hit hardest by the pandemic
I’m proud that Denver stepped up to help more than 3,960 immigrants and their families who lost jobs but were left behind by state and federal relief programs.
I also worked alongside service providers and city agencies to help open auxiliary shelters so that nearly a thousand people experiencing homelessness were not turned out onto the streets when we had to cut shelter capacity in half to provide more distance in our tightly-packed facilities. This effort also created the first large-scale, 24/7 sheltering in Denver, which includes health services.
Street homelessness also grew in size and visibility as other public activity in our communities diminished. Like other crises, we must focus on both emergency interventions and long-term solutions to homelessness — we can’t choose just one. That’s why I worked with the community and providers to develop the model for the temporary safe outdoor spaces that are helping those who were falling through the cracks of the shelter system. While hosting new services has been challenging for some in Capitol Hill, many have risen to the occasion to understand how this service-rich, highly regulated model can make life better both for those experiencing homelessness and neighborhoods, while we work concurrently to expand supportive housing and other permanent solutions. The search continues for additional sites in other areas of the city to help reduce unregulated camps, but the ongoing support of residents will be critical to achieve the scale needed.
The safe outdoor spaces hold regular neighborhood meetings to answer questions - please attend if you have a question you would like answered.
Thank you to all Denver voters for stepping up for one piece of the long-term solution - the passage of 2B. In 2021, the tax is expected to generate around $37 million to reduce homelessness. This first year will focus on continuing any emergency responses not covered by FEMA, and on re-housing people into existing housing. Future years will fund additional new supportive housing throughout the city — similar to the successful St. Francis apartments at Cathedral Square — and new catalytic projects that combine shelter and housing with services.
If you’d like to learn more about supportive housing, I encourage you to check out a guide on the topic developed with input from resident leaders of Capitol Hill at bit.ly/SHNEGuide.
COVID-19 vaccines represent hope for our health and our economy. But only if a critical mass of people — more than 70% of us — get the shots, will we begin to overcome the pandemic.
By the time this column is published, more elders and essential workers will have started to get their vaccines. But others might be anxious about the wait, and frustrated by incomplete answers from local health personnel doing their best to manage a federal supply we don’t control. The phased, prioritized approach will help us protect those who are most at-risk, therefore reducing COVID deaths — which is why our community’s patience is critical.
The most up-to-date information on the vaccine will be available at bit.ly/DenverVaccine.
Thank you to the people of Denver for the tenacity and courage you have demonstrated over the last year. I will do my humble best to continue to serve you throughout, whatever may come. Please reach out with your ideas, engagement, and feedback - they are more critical than ever.
Robin Kniech is an at-large Denver City Council member. She can be reached at Kniechatlarge@denvergov.org.
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