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Homelessness Shapes Denver’s Crowded Mayoral Race

Across the country, progressive cities with policies that provide benefits to the homeless are experiencing voter backlash as tent encampments create ill will even among the city's most liberal voters. Ironically, the price for providing better services is often the time to attract more homeless residents.

Nobody chooses to be homeless and the problem is closely tied to mental illness. Many decades ago, America's mental institutions were essentially shuttered, creating a population with no place to go?

So what's the solution to this mess? To my mind, our federal government has wasted money paying people not to work during the pandemic and a host of other ridiculous projects. What they haven't done is provide sufficient funding to provide housing and mental health service to these folks in need.

That might be something that deserves a hard look. Otherwise, cities will be placed in a difficult Catch-22 as they try to solve a problem that defies easy solutions.

Homelessness Shapes Denver’s Crowded Mayoral Race

Divided residents set to choose Tuesday among 16 candidates with differing approaches

Among the most fraught debates has centered on how Denver has handled homeless encampments.

By Dan Frosch, WSJ

April 2, 2023 5:30 am ET

DENVER—This city’s mounting homeless crisis is dominating a crowded mayoral election set for Tuesday, with over a dozen candidates offering competing plans on how to tackle an issue that has left residents sharply divided.

Here, as with other communities across the country, the homeless population grew during the pandemic—in size and visibility. Tent encampments, once tucked from view under bridges or along the South Platte River, have sprouted up downtown and in residential neighborhoods where they line sidewalks near newly constructed condominiums. The one-two punch of Denver’s growth and rising housing costs has fueled the problem, advocates for people without housing say.

With Mayor Michael Hancock termed out after 12 years, 16 candidates are vying in a nonpartisan election to succeed him. They include former and current local lawmakers, an ex-gang member turned community activist and a former U.S. Army officer. Frustrated residents, business leaders and advocates for people without housing are all pressing the candidates on how they plan to solve the dilemma.

“I’ve never seen such an intense political interest,” said Cathy Alderman, chief public policy officer for Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.

According to what is known as a point-in-time estimate, typically gathered by local homeless aid groups for the federal government each January, Denver’s homeless population has risen 44% over the past five years, to 4,794 in 2022 from 3,336 in 2017.

A SurveyUSA poll taken in late February for various media outlets and Metropolitan State University of Denver found that 52% of likely voters felt homelessness was one of the most important issues for the city to address, ranking only behind crime.

Mike Strott, a spokesman for the mayor, said the city had rehoused over 15,000 people without homes, expanded Denver’s shelter system and created more funding streams to address housing. The pandemic, though, had made it much harder to address the issue, he said.

Among the most fraught debates has centered on how Denver has handled homeless encampments, which swelled during the pandemic as people stayed away from shelters fearful of getting Covid.

Back in 2012, the city, with Mr. Hancock’s backing, passed an unauthorized camping ban. Housing advocates say sweeps of the encampments have only pushed unhoused people elsewhere. Denver business leaders say the ban hasn’t been enforced enough and that the camps are a public-safety issue that affects businesses trying to rebound.

There is little consensus between the candidates on that issue and homelessness in general.

Kelly Brough, who recently led Denver’s chamber of commerce, has vowed to eliminate unsanctioned homeless camps within her first year in office and wants to temporarily move unsheltered people into more city-approved campsites.

Mike Johnston, a former state senator, wants to build 20 micro communities of tiny homes and converted hotels. He has said he would enforce the camping ban on those who refuse city services.

Lisa Calderón, who heads an organization that helps Democratic women get elected, said she would stop the sweeps and launch a leasing program to get people into more stable housing.

Polls so far have shown no clear favorite, with more than half of voters undecided. The SurveyUSA poll found Ms. Calderón, Mr. Johnston and Ms. Brough barely leading with 5%. Some 58% of likely voters were still undecided. If no candidate reaches over 50%, the top two will move on to a runoff in June.

Jim Norris, co-owner of Mutiny Information Cafe, a local bookstore and coffee shop in a hip corridor of boutiques and bars, said the city’s approach was too heavy-handed.

“We have the money to fix this,” he said. “But instead we choose to victimize the homeless and do nothing but take their tents and clothes and just trash them.”

Mr. Norris said he wanted to see more tiny-home communities for people and more clean public bathrooms around the city. Mr. Norris says he isn’t certain whom he will support yet.

Denver resident Sunnye Keeley said she had to change her bike route to avoid encampments and worried for her safety.

“We need to increase facilities for the homeless that are safe and clean, and have restrictions,” Ms. Keeley, 76, said, while taking a break from a bike ride at a downtown Starbucks. “But that still leaves people on the street who don’t meet those qualifications.”

Denver resident Sunnye Keeley said she had to change her bike route to avoid encampments.

Ms. Keeley said she planned on voting for state Rep. Leslie Herod. Ms. Herod, the first Black LGBTQ member of the Colorado legislature, favors ending sweeps and wants to emphasize acquiring more long-term and short-term housing.

Many of the candidates—including Mr. Johnston, Ms. Calderón and Ms. Herod—gathered outside Denver’s City and County Building one February afternoon bundled in gloves and parkas for the city’s first-ever forum held by the homeless community.

Dozens of people without housing sat in folding chairs while a moderator passed around a microphone.

“We need job training, help with mental health and substance abuse. How do you plan to help us?” one woman asked.

On a recent evening, several advocacy groups doled out food and warm clothes in front of the city and county building to a crowd of people without housing. They also helped register people to vote.

Tammy Garza, 48, who has been on the streets for several years after being evicted and dealing with addiction struggles, said she had recently registered for the first time.

“There are too many empty buildings, too many empty parking lots, schools that have shut down. They could make these into shelters for women and children,” said Ms. Garza, who said she is leaning toward Ms. Calderón.

Ms. Alderman of Colorado Coalition for the Homeless said the election—and the debate over homelessness—could lead to a dramatic shift in how the issue is addressed.

“It’s created this political outcry,” she said. “It may be just the thing we need to implement solutions.”

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