Diverse groups suggest new ways to help unhoused, weigh neighborhood concerns

Guest column by various community groups
Posted 11/25/20

Registered neighborhood organizations (RNO), business improvement districts (BID), and creative districts have received inquiries regarding the seeming surge of homeless encampments in Denver. To our …

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Diverse groups suggest new ways to help unhoused, weigh neighborhood concerns

Posted

Registered neighborhood organizations (RNO), business improvement districts (BID), and creative districts have received inquiries regarding the seeming surge of homeless encampments in Denver. To our disappointment and concern, some of the inquiries have turned into hostilities. Where collaboration is paramount, we see shoulder-shrugging. Collectively, we are committed to offering our energy and support at this critical time.

We have initiated conversations with neighbors and community stakeholders to shape a path forward vis-à-vis encampments. In doing so, we have identified a number of immediate next steps where the city can support the unhoused with safe, immediate options; engage collaborative partners immediately on new ideas and implementation; and lay the groundwork for long-term, sustainable solutions.

RNOs, BIDs and creative districts have an obligation to be thought partners with the city. It is important for us to span the divide between the homeless and housed, to connect neighbors with elected officials and to examine this mission in a comprehensive way.

We offer city leaders the following framework for consideration:

Initiate a “Bring Us Your Best Ideas” strategy.

Selecting state-owned and city-owned sites for large tent encampments may be at an impasse. Our research has revealed an insufficient level of engagement between the city with direct service providers, communities of faith and other nonprofit human-service organizations. We are aware of a number of organizations, both nonprofit and for-profit, who have the facilities, capacity, know-how and active interest in supporting the city’s efforts to address homelessness and mitigate the concerns brought on by encampments.

Action Item: Continue to gather, review and determine where immediate options are available to support the unhoused and reduce the number of encampments.

Reconsider a one-size-fits-all approach.

If homeless advocates and direct service providers are willing and able to provide temporary accommodations to those who are homeless, let us be solutions-oriented and open to new opportunities and innovative approaches. Our research has determined multiple barriers in the city’s current process. For example, we are aware of a former monastery/clergy house that has been suggested as a potential shelter but was turned down due to zoning restrictions. A church near the state capitol was approached by the city to house homeless individuals inside — the facility itself could not accommodate, but why not use the parking lot? Smaller sites located throughout the city, rather than the larger-scale sites being proposed, would be easier to establish and make clear that this is a Denver problem to solve, rather than one for only a few neighborhoods to address.

Action Item: If we can offer flexibility for outdoor dining or variances to support continued development, the city has a duty to adopt a similar, nimbler strategy — site-specific, customized and one that engages the experts on the ground. Smaller sites with fewer occupants, while admittedly is less efficient, may likely be more palatable for neighborhoods to adopt in the near term.

Provide comprehensive services at each site.

Those who offered their parking lots, vacant warehouses, etc. have encountered unnecessary bureaucratic challenges. This is unsatisfactory from our perspective. We have learned some homeless advocates have encountered roadblocks as they advocated for more wrap-around services at each proposed encampment site — National Western Complex, Denver Coliseum, Empower Field at Mile High, to name a few.

Action Item: Health care, mental health services, addiction recovery, sanitation support and other basic needs must be provided to each site. Perhaps a roaming support team would work better than offering services only at the proposed large sites.

Provide status reports for sites under consideration.

A progress or feasibility report for sites already suggested by city council, the mayor’s staff and others seems appropriate at this time. Not communicating this information is working against our shared objectives. In doing so, these actions have led to speculation and frustration and has complicated matters further. Our groups are often forced to say, “we don’t know,” or, “your council member may have more information” to those who inquire.

Action Item: Similar to zoning requests or a landmark designation, the city has a duty to report where matters stand.

Expand the list of potential temporary Safe Outdoor Spaces (SOS).

Homelessness is systemic in origin and requires community-wide solutions. A number of groups have suggested additional SOS sites, to little avail. We echo these concerns. We also feel that it is important for neighborhoods throughout Denver to share in our mission to address homelessness head on. Equally important, we must weigh neighbor concerns in this process and conduct appropriate, necessary outreach as sites are considered and evaluated. Temporary SOS sites are not the only option, but they are a valuable tool in our toolbox of opportunities.

Action Item: Provide assurances that the city has a long-term plan in place to continue support of those experiencing homelessness after temporary SOS program is discontinued, and to provide permanent housing for as many as possible.

Don’t displace. Instead, thoughtfully relocate.

Given the complexity of this issue, we cannot lose sight of our humanity’s struggles and empathy for others. Telling people experiencing homelessness to move along is demeaning to them and unhelpful to all, as they, and out of necessity, must find another place to rest. The justified concerns of neighbors to having tents in public rights-of-way must also be taken into account. And, as one homeless advocate noted, “it’s OK to give public places the opportunity to rest.” Moving encampments to other locations can and should be done and with compassion and care.

Action Item: Relocate existing encampments to sanctioned, accessible sites and ensure sites are geographically accessible by foot or mass transit. Incentivize relocation with comprehensive levels of services awaiting the unhoused upon arrival (e.g., job readiness, access to meals, educational needs and so forth). Deliver sanitation, security, and other basic needs, and provide health care, mental health support and access to vaccinations. In order to demonstrate efficacy, ensure measurable outcomes and evaluate successes on an ongoing basis.

Designate a clear point of contact.

We applaud efforts to build affordable housing, provide sheltering and develop new revenue streams. Unfortunately, time is not friendly in this regard. Policy outcomes seem to be languishing. How do we share concerns with the city, and what do we communicate with our own constituencies? It remains unclear how, and to what extent, neighborhood groups should raise concerns with the city. Who is our point of contact? What is the follow-through?

Action Item: The city should take sweeping action, appointing a chief strategist who will bring clarity, focus and a sense of cohesiveness to this undertaking.

Neighborhood organizations and districts can effectively connect city leadership with neighbors’ concerns.

While 311 may be sufficient under normal circumstances, it is not an adequate tool to address homeless encampments. Perhaps a step-by-step outreach guide makes the most sense. We do not want neighbors to target those most in need, but we have asked the city for guidance as to how we remedy certain situations.

Action Item: Engage our groups to support your efforts in rolling out such plans — we can be your primary connection with neighbors, small business owners, school officials, et al. The time has come to reform these processes.

These are certainly unprecedented, challenging times. The status quo has provided only aggravation to both our housed and unhoused neighbors. We recognize and applaud the commitment and service personified by our city’s public workforce — whether the Denver Health employee on the front lines of the global pandemic or the decision-maker developing policies in the mayor’s office. We can find solutions to our community’s most vexing issues. We can only do it together, and this is more essential than ever before.

This column was submitted by, and developed in partnership with, the leadership of Capitol Hill United Neighborhoods, Inc., Uptown on the Hill Registered Neighborhood Organization, Golden Triangle Creative District, City Park West Registered Neighborhood Association, Old San Rafael Neighborhood Organization, Santa Fe Drive Business Improvement District, and others.

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