COVER STORY Denver homeless camping ban 300

A person sleeps on the ground along West Colfax Avenue and Braodway in Denver's Civic Center Park on March 23.

Denver’s efforts to help homeless people are fragmented, understaffed and lack a strategic plan, data analysis and a clear sense of who’s in charge, according to a Denver City Auditor’s report issued Thursday.

“Homelessness is a high priority issue for Denver,” Auditor Timothy M. O’Brien said. “However, we could be using our resources more effectively with possibly better results if we had a comprehensive citywide strategy, defined leadership and more specific goals to define success.”

The 57-page audit found several gaps in the way the city spends $51 million a year to address the problem of homelessness. Among them:

  • The city lacks a strategic plan to deal with homelessness and has no community-wide metrics to evaluate the performance of programs.
  • The Department of Human Services is the lead agency on homeless issues, but uncertainty persists as to who has overall authority for leading on strategic planning and policy.
  • Denver's Road Home, a seven-employee office within Human Services devoted to homelessness, can’t do strategic planning because it has so much work to do supervising homeless service provider contracts and other programs. Some employees are doing extra work outside of their job description, the audit found.

The audit made several recommendations, among them that:

  • The mayor should revise an executive order giving clearer lines of authority and responsibility for strategic planning.
  • The city should hire a data analyst for Denver's Road Home and collect more centralized data on what is happening with the city’s homeless population.
  • A staffing evaluation should be done on Road Home, something that hasn’t happened in 10 years.

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, who reorganized the city’s homeless programs four years ago to “break down silos,” welcomed and agreed to the recommendations.

“We appreciate the auditor’s common-sense recommendations, which are in line with our plan to focus our collective efforts through the creation of a new department of housing and homelessness,” Hancock said in a statement. “We are strengthening and aligning our resources to empower more people to move from the streets to permanent housing, supports, and work with dignity and compassion.”

Homelessness has been a chronic problem within Denver for nearly four decades. In 2003, then-Mayor John Hickenlooper created Denver's Road Home, an effort aimed at ending homelessness within a decade.

But the problem has persisted and, some critics say, even gotten worse.

The city’s most recent annual “point-in-time” street survey counted 3,445 homeless people in Denver. Of that number, nearly 29 percent were classified as chronically homeless and about 18 percent were living outside of the city’s homeless shelters.

Homelessness has been a major issue in the current municipal election, in large part because of Initiative 300, a ballot question that seeks to repeal the city’s ban on urban camping and assert the right of homeless people to live on the streets.

In the mayoral campaign, Hancock has touted his administration’s role in finding housing for some 7,552 formerly homeless individuals and families and the creation of three new shelters.

But his opponents have criticized those efforts as falling short, especially when it comes to the creation of affordable housing.

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