Denver business leaders want an immediate answer to homelessness

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Denver needs at least 30,000 affordable apartments to address homelessness, eliminate shantytowns, and restore downtown’s atmosphere. In the next five years, if all goes according to plan, the city will add 5,000 to 6,000 units.

A big gap was a key point this week when Denver business owners, frustrated by the state of downtown, took up their case with organizations that help the homeless find housing and shelter.

“It’s bad and getting worse” was the topic on the agenda of the Colorado Chamber of Commerce, and there was no debate even from groups trying to solve the problem. The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless and the State Office of Homeless Initiatives are providing more housing and services than ever before, but they can’t keep up with the demand.

Colorado needs about 14,600 supportive housing units, which come with not only rental assistance but also mental health, addiction and treatment services, according to a study by the National Supportive Housing Corporation. Today, the Coalition for the Homeless has about 1,500 supportive housing units in Denver, the best solution to eliminating tent camps and the need for city-sanctioned encampments because chronically homeless people often need therapy to stay at home.

While business owners support long-term solutions to housing, Beth Moyski, senior vice president of the Downtown Denver Partnership, which advocates for the business community, said they also need urgent help. She regularly hears from business owners who say their customers don’t feel threatened downtown by the number of people with dementia who are talking to themselves as they walk by.

“I get calls from property managers and property owners saying, ‘There’s a neighborhood down my street or across the street. What are you going to do about it?” She said to me.

Moysky said she is concerned not only for the business, but for the homeless and other vulnerable people on the streets. “Many people are victims of criminals who bring drugs into the area and other illegal activities,” she said. We are working with the police department to solve the crime.

The Downtown Denver Partnership requires more staffing in the city’s Support Team Assisted Response, or STAR, program than the police response, which includes dispatching a staff member trained in mental health.

But homeless advocates say Colorado is due for big-time solutions.

“We have the same goal: we want to see people off the streets,” said John Parvenski, director of the Colorado Homeless Coalition. “We want them to have a safe place to hope in their own home. But the approach is not to criminalize homelessness. It’s to create and build solutions that we know work and work in proportion to the need, not to solve 5% of the problem.”

The number of homeless people is constantly changing, as the annual homelessness count shows that most people who were sleeping in shelters and tents became homeless in the past year. The last count showed 6,888 people were homeless in the seven-county metro area in January, which organizers say is an estimated 31,000 homeless for the year.

About 30 homeless people were hospitalized that same night. And, statewide, there are 21,000 public school students who are homeless, living in shelters, doubling up with other families or sleeping in friends’ beds.

In a room full of business professionals in suits, some numbers are needed: How much money would it take to get everyone off the street and into housing?

David Zucker, CEO of Zocalo Community Development, a real estate developer committed to affordable housing, tried to ponder the math.

Each of the 14,600 supportive homes required in Colorado would cost $300,000, so that’s about $4.4 billion. The units cost $300 million a year to operate, including mental health and medical services.

“A large amount of money,” he said.

But the investment may pay off in the long run, Zucker said, noting that it costs taxpayers thousands of dollars a year for a homeless person to pay for medical care, prisons and other services. Eliminating the camps could stimulate business, which would increase sales and tax revenue for the city and state.

Christine Toombs, director of the state’s Office of Homeless Initiatives, suggested a new tax credit for businesses that invest in addressing homelessness. In the year Starting in 2023, businesses that donate to create affordable housing or help the homeless can receive a tax credit of 25% of their total donation in cities or 30% in rural areas.

Brandt Van Sickle, Homelessness Liaison for the City of Aurora Looking for homeless people on the morning of January 25, 2022. Annual “in-time” observations and surveys, usually conducted in late January, are conducted early in the morning to avoid overcrowding. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Moysky agrees that long-term investments will work with the Downtown Denver Partnership. The city’s nationally recognized social impact bond program, which often sends workers to the streets to meet emergency room and jail users, and provides housing has kept 77% of participants in housing and off the streets after three years.

But while Colorado awaits results, business and property owners need more, she said.

“When there’s a more uniform presence, they feel more secure when they see service workers,” Moyski said. “The hardest part is the space between.”

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