Denver needs better solutions for housing homeless

Paul Kashmann
Posted 11/7/19

It’s 30 degrees outside as I jot down my thoughts early on a Friday morning. It was even colder late last night. And it will be colder yet on Sunday when the temperatures are expected to rise no …

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Denver needs better solutions for housing homeless

Posted

It’s 30 degrees outside as I jot down my thoughts early on a Friday morning. It was even colder late last night. And it will be colder yet on Sunday when the temperatures are expected to rise no higher than the mid-to-high 20s throughout the day. My car has “butt warmer” seats, for which I’m quite grateful, and I’ve got a warm sweater picked out so I won’t get chilled as I move from home to car, car to office, and office to appointments throughout this brisk fall day.

And hundreds of our fellow Denverites slept outside last night. And they will do so again tonight, tomorrow and Sunday. And probably every other night of this year. Many even when the mercury dives well below zero.

Whether or not making the choice to sleep outside, rather than grab a bed — or a mat on a shelter floor when the beds get filled — is actually a matter of choice depends on your perspective. The story has been repeated often — Denver’s shelters are basically designed for single men and women. They do not welcome couples, families or people with pets, and are not particularly well suited to those with disabilities or health challenges as well as those in the LGBTQ community. And if you work at night, they are not open during the day to give you a place to rest.

Most are not equipped to allow “clients” to bring their belongings with them. And many are large facilities with up to hundreds packed into a single room, in beds that may be 18 inches apart. True privacy or quiet time are non-existent. Bed bugs may be a problem. There is no TV lounge if you’re the type that wakes up in the middle of the night and needs a few minutes of Netflix to get you back to sleep. And there’s no fridge close by packed with your favorite snack if a few midnight calories will settle you down.

So, with a good sleeping bag and tent, and a few creature comforts of your own close by, the outdoors becomes a better choice for many. Not a choice they want to have to make, but under existing conditions a choice they are willing to make.

Cities across the country are struggling to address the growing crisis of homelessness in a way that changes the dynamic and actually moves towards a “solution.” It has to do with improved mental health care and drug abuse treatment. It has to do with wages that do a better job of keeping up with inflation. And it has to do with wrap-around services — job training and the like — that help those who are able, to get back on their feet as independent, productive members of our community.

But there is one more large piece. I met recently with a group of University of Denver professors who wanted to know how their research could help inform public policy. One gentleman introduced himself as a sociologist, with a research focus on homelessness. I told him that if he had a solution, to please contact me and I’d share it far and wide. Without hesitation, he offered “Build housing.” His point is very well taken.

Denver’s affordable housing fund, created a few short years ago under the leadership of Councilwoman Robin Kniech, is slowly increasing our inventory of new homes and apartments and preserving affordable units across our city. New options like land trusts are becoming part of our palette of housing products. But we are simply not moving with the velocity Denver’s housing crisis requires. While my focus is first to get folks in out of the cold, we also need affordable residences for all but the most financially fortunate — workforce families, young families starting out, veterans, seniors and others wanting, but unable, to call Denver “home.”

For me, addressing homelessness in the short term has something to do with providing regulated urban camping with shower facilities and bathrooms and trash receptacles. This has proved to be challenging for other cities that have tried it, but it feels like something we ought to be able to figure out. We hold massive events in our city for tens of thousands. We can surely provide accommodations for a few hundred without complete chaos breaking loose.

But in the long term, as my DU friend offered, it’s about, “Build housing.” Being landlocked and already well-developed, we have limited construction sites available in our city. We should not build any residential project that does not have a relevant affordability component at its heart. “Relevant” meaning 10% is not going to get us where we need to be in this lifetime.

Council will be holding a retreat focused specifically on seeking more compassionate, effective solutions to homelessness shortly after the first of the year

We do not shoot our wounded. We don’t leave them on the battlefield. We lift them up and do our best to get them back on their feet. We need to do better. We must.

Paul Kashmann represents District 6 in the Denver City Council. District 6 covers southeast Denver, which includes the Washington Park, Virginia Village, Indian Creek neighborhoods and more. He can be reached at paul.kashmann@denvergov.org.

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