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Denver Mayor Mike Johnston 'optimistic' his administration can meet homelessness goal in two months

Denver Mayor Mike Johnston one-on-one with rob
Posted at 6:39 AM, Oct 20, 2023
and last updated 2023-10-20 08:39:31-04

DENVER — A little more than two months remain in Denver Mayor Mike Johnston's first calendar year on the job and the deadline he set for his administration to get 1,000 people experiencing homelessness off the streets and into shelters and housing.

This week, Johnston's administration announced a new partnership with the White House, joining several other major U.S. cities in the "All INside Initiative" to reduce homelessness nationwide 25% by 2025.

Denver7's Rob Harris sat down with Johnston to ask him about the latest progress in the fight against homelessness, and if he still believes he can meet his goal by the end of the year.

FULL INTERVIEW: Denver Mayor Mike Johnston 'optimistic' administration can meet House1000 goal

Note: This transcript has minor edits for clarity.

Q: You set the goal of getting 1,000 people experiencing homelessness off the streets in your first year. Are we on track to meet that goal?

A: You know, I think we are on track. But we knew when we started this, it was an incredibly ambitious goal. We knew that previously, it had taken the city almost three years to site one micro community for 40 units. So to do, you know, nine sites, potentially with 1,000 units, in 90 days was going to be incredibly ambitious. But the city employees are rallying in incredible ways. They're working around the clock. Our nonprofit partners are. We think we're getting access to the sites that we need. And so we're optimistic, but we remain humble about how ambitious the goal is.

Q: Are you able to share how close we are or how far we are from the goal?

A: I think the key is, I think we have a line of sight on the actual units and the sites. Getting those sites prepared, getting them ready, getting them acquired, getting them prepared, that's quite complicated. Some of these sites, normally construction would take 12 to 15 months on them. We're trying to do them in 60 to 90 days. And so I think we have to have a line of sight to the units we'll need and the partners we’ll need. It’s just a matter of whether we can get all the construction, the rehab, the preparation, and then the outreach to unhoused neighbors to get them prepared and ready. And so it's a matter of landing all of that, in probably the cold month of December. But that's one of the reasons why we set the goal was we know when winter gets cold and the storms come in, people are most at risk. We want to try to get them home for the holidays like we do for everybody else.

Q: You said you knew going in this would be a challenge. Have there been any surprise challenges or things that were even harder than maybe you expected?

A: Yeah, I've learned a lot of things I didn't know about. For instance, it's very hard to find some of the electrical equipment even to be able to move into these sites. I've learned more about transformers. [I] never thought I would know in terms of what the supply chains are of being able to bring those units on, to bury electric lines, to get water lines built. So those are all possible. You know, we've had many sites we've had to vet that turned out to have flaws that made them not workable. And so we started with a list of 2,000 sites. And now we're down to nine. And so, lots of learning along the way about what does and doesn't work. I think what's been most exciting about it is at probably every one of these community meetings we've had where people will have very fair questions or thoughts or concerns, there’ll always be two, three, four, five people who will raise their hand and say, “I just want to know, what can I do to help?” You know, and I think that spirit of, people see the emergency, they want to be a part of the solution. They are, I think, convinced that this strategy can work and they want to see it be successful.

Q: So having somewhere to go is a key part of this. Having the wraparound services there is a key part of this. But what do we know about individuals experiencing homelessness, being open to those services when they're provided to them?

A: This is one of the most exciting successes of the last few weeks is, people had questions about, “Will this work?” And one of the questions people had was, “Will people take services if we offer them to them? Will they take housing?” When we, several weeks ago for the first time in Denver history, closed an encampment by moving all 83 of those people into housing, the most amazing part of that was 100% of the people we contacted, all accepted housing. 100%. They've moved to that housing. They're receiving services on that site. And actually, the biggest challenge we had was when the other people in the unhoused community figured out that we were housing people from that site, and they all moved to that site because they thought, “Oh, if I get there, I'll get access to housing.” And so for us, that's a real compelling sign that people want housing. They'll do anything they can to get access to it. And they want to be able to get access to the services, all the wraparound services we can offer, which we know once you get stabilized in a house or in a transitional housing unit, then your willingness to take mental health support, or addiction treatment or workforce training goes up dramatically.

Q: Tell us how this new partnership with the White House and the federal government is going to work with your overall plan.

A: Yeah, I mean, the leader from the White House yesterday said, “Denver gives us hope,” you know, which I thought was, this is first and foremost a deep affirmation of the power of our strategy that we think it can not only succeed for Denver, but be a national model. And so to be recognized by the White House is incredibly important. But more important is they're gonna actually help us succeed. They do a couple of key things. One is they're going to give us a senior level undersecretary from the federal department, who will be embedded right here in Denver for the next year. And their only job is all day every day — help us remove federal barriers, help us access federal resources, and help us make it much easier to do the work. So that's incredibly important. It also provides a great network of other cities taking on the same work. One of the first calls I made was to Karen Bass who is the mayor of L.A. She similarly declared a state of emergency in L.A., and we've been learning from her around strategies that do work or don't work. So it's both the direct service and support, it's access to resources. It's a network of other cities working on the same problem. And that partnership is really helpful.

Q: The fact that we have so many cities across the country in their own ways dealing with the same issue, what does that tell you about the current moment we’re living in?

A: Yeah, we know this is a systemic challenge all across the country. And we know, for better or worse, this problem hits cities the most, that are the highest demand cities. Cities with real booming economies. People all want to move to Denver. They all want to buy houses or rent units. That drives up the cost of units, and then we get more and more people that can't afford to pay that rent. If you look at the top 10 cities with the biggest homelessness challenge, they are also the top 10 cities with the highest cost of living. And so we know that's, you know, it's sort of the challenge of being a world class city is you get a lot of these world class challenges. We were blessed to have that. We now need to attend to the challenges that come, which is folks that can't afford to pay the rent. I was at an encampment up at 48th and Colorado last week talking to three people — all three of them were working. Two of them work in an Amazon warehouse. They were in an apartment last month, and someone jacked their rent up from $1,500 to $1,800. And that was just one step too far for what they could afford. So we know this will happen in cities that attract a lot of people that want to live here. We got to build more permanently affordable units for everybody. We have to help those folks that are struggling the most to get access to the transitional housing they need to get back on their feet.

Q: What’s the biggest lesson you've learned in those individual meetings you've had with these communities before you go in?

A: I think I've seen a real deep desire for people to get access to help. And I think I've seen all the reasons why it is so hard to pull yourself by your bootstraps. If you're living in a tent right now, simple things like you go to work for the day and you come back and all your stuff stolen out of your tent. You know, you go to sleep at night and someone cuts open the tent and steals your stuff while you're there. You don't have a physical address to be able to apply on the job application to get a job in the first place. And so those everyday challenges. We know it's an economic crisis that pulls people into homelessness. But we know once you're there, the trauma of being homeless makes it that much harder to get out. That is addiction or mental health needs or lack of safety. But we've found once we can get people stabilized into these units, then it's much easier to take the next step. Like Brandon, who was here yesterday who spoke at our press conference. He was one of those folks living on 8th and Logan at the encampment that we were able to close and move into housing. Once he got into housing, he's now already two weeks into a course for his commercial driver's license. You know, he's on the path to employment. He's on top of the world. And so it just took the first part of stability to get them into housing, and offer those services in a way that he can access them that turns his life around.

Q: What do you say to people out there living in Denver, who feel like for years now they've heard about more funding, more options, a new partnership with some city or some government, but yet they've seen homelessness around their neighborhoods go in the wrong direction?

A: Yeah, they're totally right. And I share that frustration, too. We have seen a 300% increase in unsheltered homelessness over the last five years. That is a massive problem. That's why I ran for mayor. That's why I made this the first issue I was going to tackle. That's why we're so focused on it. We want both things. We both want the Brandon's of Denver to be able to get off the street, into housing, get their life back together. And we want every neighbor and resident and small business to be able to have their own sidewalks and front lawns and public parks free for everyone to access. That's why we want both. Moving people into housing is what allows us, for the first time, to close encampments and keep them closed. That's why our vision is both we're helping individuals who need it. And we're getting back maybe the first major downtown in America where you could walk through all of downtown and not have to see anybody who has to sleep on the streets. We're committed to both of those things and won't rest until we get both of them done.

Q: One thousand people in your first year is an ambitious goal. You said it yourself. Are you concerned though that we see — because of all these factors you're describing — the problem grow even faster than an ambitious goal can reach?

A: Yeah, we know this goal won't actually be enough. It's both incredibly ambitious. And it won't be enough. That's why we've already committed to doing another 1,000 next year in our 2024 budget. But it's why we're also really focused on things like how do we prevent people from entering homelessness in the first place. So we proposed a 500% expansion of funding in the city for rental assistance, for someone like the individuals I talked with last week who were paying the rent, couldn't keep up, and now they're homeless. If we can keep someone in a unit that maybe costs $2,000 or $3,000 to help them stay in their rental unit. Once they become homeless, it might cost us $30,000 or $40,000 to support them there. It's not just the right humanitarian thing to do, it's the right fiscal thing to do to make sure that we support people. And so we're gonna focus on stopping the pipeline into homelessness, supporting more and more people to get out and then helping them get from transitional housing up into permanent housing. So we'll set a target to add another 1,000 units next year. And also to have people like Brandon who are coming into this unit — they’re there for two, three, four months, getting back on their feet, getting a job, saving up some money. Then they have the money they need to move into their own apartment, pay first month's and last month's rent and get up and flourishing. So that is the goal is not just to have people housed in a transitional way, but getting back on their feet and into permanent housing.

Q: How can people watching be a part of the solution?

A: There are a number of ways. One is just voice your support for this effort. We know there are folks who have questions and concerns. The great majority of people I talk to are really excited about the process. And they've seen that this strategy is going to work. They've seen that we've been able to close encampments with housing and keep those neighborhoods free from camping. We want to do that all over the city. So I think one is, if you want to come volunteer with us, we'd love to have your help doing outreach to encampments, helping people out what we call moving day, which is where we come in to move people into housing. If you want to help get people moved or get them welcomed, we'd love your help on that. And also, I think it's spreading the word among your neighbors and friends and businesses that there is a real path to breakthrough solution here, we just need them to help us stay the course over these next three months to try to deliver a historic success.