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Denver officials unsure of impacts to city resources as migrant families begin exiting shelters

At Newcomers Briefing, city officials revealed Denver spent over $5M in 2023 on bus tickets for migrants to travel elsewhere
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Posted at 5:23 PM, Jan 31, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-31 19:23:44-05

DENVER – Top city officials acknowledged in front of Denver City Council Wednesday they are not sure how much city resources will be impacted once shelters start discharging migrant families at the beginning of next month.

Migrant and refugee families coming from the southern border were able to stay at city-run shelters for an indefinite amount of time after Denver suspended length-of-stay limits in mid-November due to cold weather. But as resources are stretched thin with each new arriving wave of migrants, the city is once again putting a cap on the number days families can stay in shelters.

On Monday alone, about 160 families who have been taking refuge at shelters across Denver will be discharged and will have to go elsewhere. Between 40 to 120 additional families will be discharged each day through the end of March, according to data provided by the mayor’s office to Denver City Council’s Safety, Housing, Education, and Homeless Committee.

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“There will be some heavy days in the weeks ahead where lots of people are being exited from shelters,” said Mayor Mike Johnston’s deputy chief of staff, Evan Dreyer, during a briefing on the city’s migrant response to Denver City Council Wednesday.

Acknowledging the Johnston administration doesn’t know “exactly what the impacts are going to be when we start the significant discharge of families next week,” Dreyer said the city would be working hard to find options for those families “so they don’t feel like their only option is to be on the streets, particularly while it is still winter.”

Among those options is “onward travel,” or buying bus tickets for migrants arriving to Denver so they can get to where they want to go, said Annie-Marie Braga, the executive director of Denver’s Department of Human Services.

Touting it as “highly successful strategy” by the city, Braga revealed Denver spent over $5 million in 2023 on bus tickets alone for migrants to travel elsewhere, purchasing about 19,000 bus tickets at a cost of $300 on average.

Five million dollars might sound like a lot of money (which it is), but a breakdown of the costs from the city’s migrant response shows that figure only represents 11% of the total spent in 2023, according to city data.

In all, the city spent $46 million responding to the migrant crisis, with the bulk of that going to hotel and lodging. The city could spend nearly that much by the first quarter of the year if hundreds of migrants continue arriving each day, Dreyer said.

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Without federal support, he reiterated, Denver could be looking at a budget of $180 million in 2024, which the mayor has previously said would look like a 10% across-the-board cut of the entire city budget.

So far, the city has supported more than 38,000 migrants and refugees at a cost of $40 million since December 2022, Dreyer told city council, as he warned resources were becoming scarce.

“If we were to have to sustain this level… it is unsustainable from a staff perspective, from a space perspective and certainly from a financial perspective,” Dreyer told council.

It’s not clear how many buses Denver will receive in the coming days and weeks, city officials said, but the latest data showed that the city saw an average of 250 people at the height of the latest wave from the end of November through the first half of January.

Now, Dreyer said, the city is averaging about 50 people per day. As of Wednesday, there were a little more than 4,000 people staying at a city shelter.

“We have to look up and create a long-term plan”

In a potential best-case scenario, Braga argued, the Department of Human Services would need between $23-26 million each year to provide an adequate baseline for intake, sheltering, meals and transportation to 500 arriving migrants, with about $6 million of that total going to basic case management to help them with housing assistance.

“We have to look up and create a long-term plan for this,” Braga said. “We’ve been in this emergency mode for a while.”

Part of that long-term plan, according to Perla Gheiler, the director of the city’s Human Rights and Community Partnerships department, is creating a Newcomer Program that will be staffed to operate the migrant response with a logic model, action plan and an agreed upon budget.

The program would address immediate needs of arriving migrants and provide short-term shelter as well as a case manager and resource navigator to start, with legal services and employment resources being provided within the first few months of their arrival. At six months to a year, the program would help migrants with housing deposits, short-term rent subsidies, banking resources and ultimately help them integrate into the community.

To get this started, the city and the state are already funding up to 10 community partners to provide case management services to families, who are helping connect families to housing and legal clinics and a variety of other services, Gheiler told city council.

“We are making a thoughtful, methodical process in who we are case managing first so they have a plan and an exit,” she said, adding that so far this week, the city has had four housing and legal clinics to help migrant families find the money they need for first month’s rent or a deposit to make sure they don’t end up on the streets.

The city is also partnering with the Colorado Hosting Asylum Network to train community organizations to building a host family or host home network as most of the work on that front has been taken on by individual people and families.

“Migrants have traveled in harsh conditions through jungles, bodies of water and have survived,” Braga said. “All they want is to earn an honest living and make a life for their family free from oppression and violence.”