COVER STORY Denver homeless campaign ban 300 trash

People clear trash and belongings from a makeshift homesless camp near the Denver Rescue Mission on March 8, 2016, ahead of a city eviction of people living on the street in the area.

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock said Friday that he will seek to create a new city department of Housing and Homelessness aimed at focusing efforts to create affordable housing and help homeless people find places to live.

Hancock also unveiled two new initiatives intended to ease the persistent problem of homelessness:

• A $5 million program over three years that would be aimed at providing “bridge” vouchers for up to 200 homeless people annually that would enable them to move into longer-term housing.

• A $10.7 million initiative  that would enable service providers to create places where homeless people could go during daytime hours when the city’s shelters are normally closed.

Hancock said he hopes some of the money for those initiatives can come from private and philanthropic organizations. To that end, Hancock announced a $1 million grant that the city has received from the Anschutz Foundation.

(Businessman Philip F. Anschutz, who created the Anschutz Foundation in 1984, also owns Clarity Media Group, the parent company of Colorado Politics.)

Hancock disclosed the new moves before a gathering of several hundred people attending the city’s 5th annual forum on affordable housing Friday at the Hyatt Regency Denver at Colorado Convention Center.

“Just like zoning, planning, street paving, police and fire protection, what we do around housing and homelessness should be, must be, a core city service,” Hancock told the crowd, which broke into applause.

“It needs the structure within city government to bring all the necessary resources to bear to tackle the challenges our residents in need are facing,” he added.

The proposal for a new cabinet-level department on housing and homelessness marked the second time in three weeks that Hancock has proposed a new city department. On April 2 he spelled out plans for a new department of transportation and infrastructure.

Both moves would require a voter-approved city charter change.

The proposed housing and homelessness proposal came one day after a critical Denver City Auditor report found that the city’s efforts to address the homelessness were fragmented, understaffed and lacking strategic planning and a clear line of authority.

After his speech, Hancock said he welcomed the auditor’s recommendations. But he said plans for a new city department have been in the works for more than two years.

“The audit was very informative, as it should be; that’s what audits are for, Hancock said. “I appreciate and respect the auditor’s position.

“We were moving in this direction anyway,” he added. “It just gave us greater affirmation that we’re moving in the right direction.”

Hancock’s proposal drew praised from Tami Door, the CEO of the Downtown Denver Partnership, a business association.

“We’re excited that there’s a project that’s being put forward in terms of another next step,” Door said. “We certainly know that it’s important for individuals to have a place to go during the day.”

“And we do know there is a need for that bridge housing,” she added. “And we believe this is a very strong step in the right direction.”

Both initiatives come at a time when Denver voters are deciding on Initiative 300, a ballot question that would repeal the city’s ban on urban camping and assert the right of homeless people to live on the city’s parks and streets.

Opponents of the measure, including Door's partnership, have raised about $1.5 million to convince residents to vote no on the referendum.

That fundraising sparked an outcry from some advocates who questioned why that money was not being spent to help homeless people.

Door said the business and philanthropic community have donated millions – often without fanfare – to efforts at easing homelessness.

Denver would not be the first city to have a department that combined housing and homelessness, said Derek Woodbury, a spokesman for Denver Economic Development and Opportunity. He cited San Diego as an example.

Hancock’s announcements come at a time when he is seeking re-election to a third and final four-year term. His challengers have sharply criticized him during the campaign for not doing a better job of creating more affordable housing and dealing with homelessness.

One of those challengers, former state lawmaker Penfield Tate III, also attended Friday’s forum. Tate said the audit confirmed what he has been saying for months.

“The city does not have and never has had a coordinated or a consistent approach to deal with homelessness,” Tate said. He also questioned the timing of Hancock’s announcements.

“It is no surprise that they are all of a sudden announcing a new department,” Tate said. “It’s clearly an election season ploy to try to scramble and make it look like change is coming.”

But Hancock said the campaign had nothing to do with the proposed new department.

“These are processes that started over two years ago,” he said.

“Leadership doesn’t call for you to make snap judgements. It takes time to allow the teams to work together,” he added. “I don’t necessarily respond to the criticism, because they simply don’t know what they don’t know.”

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