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Denver Mayor Mike Johnston discusses first 100 days in office

"Whenever you're doing something big, it will be hard. You know, all of the easy problems have already been solved"
Posted at 6:02 AM, Oct 26, 2023
and last updated 2023-10-26 08:02:13-04

DENVER — Wednesday marked 100 days since Denver Mayor Mike Johnston was sworn into office. Denver7 sat down for a one-on-one interview with the mayor to reflect on the start of his term.

Note: This transcript has minor edits for clarity.

Q: We're going to start with homelessness first, because that is, in my mind, the biggest issue that we've seen addressed by you within the first 100 days. Would you agree with that?

A: Yeah, it's been our number one focus. That's where we started because we knew it was the thing we had to take on first. And so that was why we declared a state of emergency on day one, was to say, we think the city has to first focus on this humanitarian crisis in order to make way for the other top priorities we have which we've already started on also, which are affordable housing, and public safety and economic revitalization. So we're focused on all four of those, but homelessness has been our big first effort.

Q: It has been said by Housekeys Action Network Denver (HAND) and other advocacy groups that your approach to addressing homelessness is a continuation of Hancock's administration's approach. What are you doing that's different?

A: I think it couldn't be more different in terms of how we've approached this. First is we've provided a real sense of urgency to address the single largest problem, which is why I think why previous efforts have failed is that it's very hard in the context where people are living on the streets, if you don't have any housing to move them into all you can do is what people used to call sweeping them, which is you just move an encampment from one block to the next. But the encampment never actually goes away, people never get access to housing, they just moved from block to block. We've changed the dynamic for saying our fundamental focus is actually bringing on access to transitional housing, to hotel units, to tiny home villages, to leased apartments. And then that allows us to do what has never been done in Denver before, which is to actually close an encampment and close it by moving everyone in the encampment to housing. So that's the new strategy we've piloted, and that's why we're bringing on these 1,000 units as that would allow us to get 1,000 people off of the streets and into housing, it would also allow us to then close those encampments, and keep those neighborhoods close to camping permanently. So we think that helps us solve the humanitarian need for those that are unhoused and also helps solve everyone in the city's desire to have back public parks and rights of way and city streets that we can all access.

Q: What has the follow up been for the 83 people who were moved out of the Capitol Hill encampment a few weeks ago, after they accepted shelter? Do you know if they are still in fact in shelter? Or have they ended up back on the streets?

A: They're all in hotel units. So, what we would call non-congregate shelter, or I call transitional housing, sometimes it's meant to be a three to six month waystation, where you get yourself stabilized, get any help or support you need, get a job, start saving up some money, then move into your own permanent unit. So yeah, all 83 of those folks moved to housing and all 83 of those folks are still at the Best Western as far as I know.

Q: One of the issues that HAND brought up at a protest recently was that they believe that part of the House1000 initiative is using that if people are sheltered for 14 days, they are considered to have been taken off the streets, but then they can go back onto the streets. How would you respond to that?

A: Yeah, I think it's just a misunderstanding. What we have is people ask and even the federal HUD department uses a first criteria for what the first step in housing is, and they actually use the criteria that's only one night, you know, we thought that was far too small. So we've set up 14 days is just our first criteria, we will then look at where folks are one month out, three months out, six months out. We'll look at are they accessing services? What services are they accessing? Do they have a job? Are they back on their feet? Are they paying their own rent in their own apartment long term? And of course, are they returning to homelessness? And if so, how are we making sure they're getting back into services. So we will track all of those outcomes long term and have a public dashboard, people can see all of that.

Q: So if say someone who had already, let's say from the Capitol Hill encampment, just as a hypothetical, if they were in that shelter for 14 days, and then went back out onto the street, that's already reflected in the House1000 initiative?

A: Yeah, we'll be tracking any long term impact. If someone returns to homelessness, then we know that's occurring. That's something we have to focus on, getting people back into services again. So the idea here is this is about long term support. It's not just about a short term intervention. It's, yes, getting people off the streets where their lives are at risk, and into a hotel unit or micro community or at least apartment, but then it's helping support them all the way up in through a permanent housing unit, getting back to work, paying their own rent. And so that's where we're tracking them long term with that data and those services.

Q: How is the House1000 initiative going?

A: I feel like it's going very well. I mean, this will be a historic effort for us to take on one thing no city has done at this scale before which is the ability to house this many people this quickly and be able to close encampments and keep them closed. So we're bringing on units every day. We've broken ground on a couple of our micro community sites already. We've acquired a couple hotels, we think we have a path to get those 1,000 units brought on before the end of the year and get people off of the streets and into housing. And we know as our first winter storm comes this weekend, this is why we were focused on doing this urgently, is the end of the year is not magical for some arbitrary deadline. It's because this is when winter comes and it gets very cold and people are at risk of being exposed to the elements and freezing to death, as we had folks do last year.

Q: So all those numbers that we see on the dashboard, those are people currently in shelter, right?

A: They are currently already in some sort of either housing or non-congregate shelter.

Q: What happens if the House1000 initiative is not achieved by the end of the year?

A: I mean, for us, we're committed to this long term, rain or shine. And so there is no, there is no declaring victory because we got to 1,000 and the effort's over. There's far more work to do even if we are successful in it. So, whether we get to 947 people or 1,023 people, the work continues, which is then housing the next 1,000, making sure we get those next 1,000 folks off the streets and into transitional housing, and then also making sure we're building up the long term supply of permanently affordable housing so people can move into their own units. And that's not just true for people that are unhoused. That's true for people across the city. Right now, almost 50% of Denverites can't afford to live in Denver tonight. And that's teachers, nurses, firefighters, servers, retail workers. So, we're looking to add 3,000 permanently affordable units every year, so that all working Denverites can have access to housing they can afford. That's all part of the same continuum. This is just the first step to get that first set of individuals into the housing they need.

Q: We've heard from unhoused people that larger encampments are allowed to stay in place for weeks while smaller encampments, two or three tents, are told by the Street Enforcement Team (SET) that they must leave immediately. Is this something that's happening? Why are smaller encampments swept, but larger encampments given advanced notice?

A: Yeah, so there's a agreement, we have in a settlement called the Lyle Center with the ACLU, that requires a certain set of notice and interventions for what's called large incumbents removal, which are large encampments. And so for those under the Lyle Center, when we commit to doing a seven day notice, and every one of those sites, providing wraparound services in each of those sites as they go forward. And other locations where we have an individual or one or two people, there are still other enforcement that operates around the same principles. If they're in a public right away, or they're in a location they're not supposed to be, or they're in front of someone's business or someone's lawn, then sometimes folks will stay, sometimes they'll be moved along based on the implications, but we have committed to keeping the structure of the Lyle settlement and those are the seven day notices we use for large incumbents removal. And we'll keep doing that including, I visit those sites personally, we have mental health and physical health and addiction and mental health supports that come in and talk to people, we connect them to services. We've made this a much I think more successful and far more humane process. And we're excited about that progress.

Q: A reporter was was told by the Best Western that is acting as a shelter, that they're expecting an influx of 50 people tomorrow, I believe. Then we also got a press release from the city about an encampment that is being that is being moved and those people are moving into shelter. Are those 50 people that the Best Western says they're anticipating, from that encampment that the city says will be moving people into transitional housing?

A: Yeah. So this is our second camp closure, or we call it second camp resolution, which is I think the key of why the language matters is to resolve an encampment is a very different thing than to sweep it. To sweep it is just to move people from one block to the next. This is actually resolving the need for someone to camp because they're no longer having to live in a tent. They're now moving into a hotel unit in this moment. So yeah, this will be our second effort at an encampment resolution. And we'll be moving those people into housing. They have a seven day notice, folks can move anytime they want to. But we do know that cold weather is coming this weekend. So we're trying to make it possible for individuals who want to move before that cold weather to get them out of the cold weather faster. So we're moving an accelerated set of transitions tomorrow for individuals who want to go, and we think that's a exciting moment for us to have now, the second time in Denver history where we have a entire camp of folks that now can move into housing is a big deal.

Q: When you addressed concerns for funding the House1000 plan last month, you said that you're redirecting $3.3 million from equipping recreation centers for emergency overnight use, saying that you would hope the redirecting of this money toward more permanent housing would lead to fewer people seeking out rec centers for shelter. With the current influx of migrants that are now coming, is that still the plan to redirect all that money away from rec centers? If so, how do you plan to respond if more migrants keep coming and the city starts running out of shelter space as it did during the last two waves under the Hancock administration?

A: We are planning for both increased migrant arrivals and for increased need for cold weather shelter, but we are not planning on using our rec centers as locations to either house migrants or people that need cold weather shelter right now. We're working on other facilities, both non-congregate sites, congregate shelter sites, churches, schools, other city buildings we can use. And so we have a whole waterfall of sites we can bring on based on how many individuals that there are that need access to shelter and how cold the night is. And that will include if there are newcomer migrants who are outside on the streets and are exposed to the elements. They are of course, equally welcome to be inside and making sure they're well taken care of. So we do have a strategy that's focused on cold weather shelter. But yeah, we think taking 1,000 people off the streets and into transitional housing and non-congregate shelter does reduce the total amount of people who are at risk when a cold front comes, like this weekend. But we still know there will be people that need access to that. And we were very prepared to stand up that congregate shelter this weekend, and going forward.

Q: What were your thoughts on City Council's opinion of your budget and asking for $80 million more dollars out of that budget?

A: Yeah, I totally understand. I mean, I wish we could fund all the things we want to fund with more resources than we have. And we all, I think, care about a lot of the same things. And so, I certainly understand the reasons why they stood up for things that they think are important. I think we share the same values in wanting to make sure we have a city that is vibrant, and that is affordable, and that is safe. I think we have a shared commitment on things like rental assistance that we want to expand. We've pushed for 500% expansion in the city's commitment to rental assistance to make sure people don't enter into homelessness in the first place. And so I think those are all shared priorities. Unfortunately, part of the challenge is we do have to run a balanced budget in this city. We're not like the federal government where you can just print more money. And so we have to by charter law get to a balanced budget. Our job is to make the hard decisions about of all the competing priorities in the city. How do we make all those fit into a smaller package than we wish we had. But I think what we've presented produces a really balanced view with the city's most significant challenges, homelessness, affordable housing, public safety, economic revitalization, and I think that will put the city in good stead. But we're open to feedback and ongoing collaboration with the city council and that's how the process works, like this will be good government at its best. It's people who want to get things done, and we'll figure out how to get to an agreement together.

Q: We're going to move to policing. A lot of community advocates, including the Denver Task Force to Reimagine Policing and Public Safety, have suggested we decrease the number of officers on our streets. But you've proposed increasing that number and providing the funding to do so?

A: Well, I think there are two critical components to public safety. One is when someone calls 911, they want to make sure someone answers and then someone responds, that is a core commitment of government is to provide public safety. Right now, we don't have enough officers to provide those core services. So we do need to make an expansion. We also had last year, the highest levels of crime in this century in Denver. And so that is a real crisis that is not made up, the city residents are feeling it all across the city. So we think that requires two things. One is yes, putting more officers onto the streets so we can be more responsive to those needs. It also means of adding more alternative options to how we respond to needs, it is not always an officer that you want to send to someone in crisis. So that means we've also expanded our alternative responses to city need that is not driven by someone with a gun or a badge. That's the expansion of our STAR program that responds to people that have mental health crisis. It's an expansion of our Co-Responder Programs, where you might have a mental health worker and an officer who jointly respond. So we do want to in any moment that we can send a non-officer to intervention. But also we know if there are real public health or public safety risks, if there is actually a house that's broken into, or a car that's been stolen or someone that's been assaulted, we need an officer to be able to show up there. So we want to do both. We want to make sure we have community based support that doesn't look like always an officer and want to make sure we have enough officers to respond when we need them.

Q: We have had a couple of viewers write in and say when they call 911, they can't get anyone to answer. We even have one of our reporters partners call 911, and no one answers. How does the mayor's office support this?

A: Yeah, so this is part of it is also making sure we have the funding we need for the Department of Safety, which staffs our 911 calls. We right now have three different numbers across the city. We have a 911 number, we have a 311 info line, and we also have a non-emergency 911 number. That's three separate apparatuses we have to support. We're going to look to merge those into just a 911 and a 311 call program and the ability to actually fully staff and integrate those services. So that people can know when they call, they're going to get an answer, and they're going to get a resource deployed to them right away. So that's part of what we see in this budget too, is the resources we need to make sure the call centers and the dispatches are staffed.

Q: Denver has paid out millions of taxpayer dollars in settlements stemming from police misconduct during the George Floyd protests. What are your thoughts on that settlement money and the misconduct that happened right here in Denver?

A: We are really committed to making sure we have a city where people feel protected, but don't feel policed. You know, they want to see the police as their allies and partners, not as their opponents. And so I think there were plenty of mistakes that were made in that response. And that's where many of those lawsuits have come from, many of the practices and how we respond, what materials we use, how we interact with the public were changed before I arrived, and many of them will change now in terms of what our approach is to these to these types of situations. But we believe there is a way to have both a tremendously capable, trained, supportive police force that can be able to meet the public's needs and not have to abuse that power or excessively use that force. And we think we can have very trained, committed public servants that can do both.

Q: With your plan to add more officers to DPD, is there any money being allocated to improve community trust specifically when it comes to communities of color?

A: Yeah, we're working specifically on all the things we do to preserve and establish public safety, that don't require police officers. We're looking at the idea of an Office of Neighborhood Safety, which many of our community members and advocates have supported, which is the idea of how do you align all of the things we do in the city that are about prevention of crime, that are separate from what happens after you call 911? What happens before you call 911 to prevent and intervene in those situations where people might be at risk of committing crime? And so we're working hard on how we align those into services that really serve the community, and particularly communities of color, to build that kind of collaborative relationship to invest in after school programming and intervention programs and diversion programs and mental health support and the physical health needs that we know help drive long term risks of criminal behavior. So we're going to take an all of the above approach, but really focus on community engagement as a first strategy.

Q: HAND, one of their biggest points, was that they believe there's a difference between someone finding permanent housing and being sheltered. How do you come to terms with that difference, because one of their biggest concerns was that this House1000 initiative, it's just sheltering people?

A: So we'll have both. We'll be placing people directly into leased units that are long term housing, we're putting folks into hotel rooms that sometimes can be leased units that are permanent, sometimes they're short term. But we do know this is about getting people up the first rung in the ladder. Right now we literally have folks that are sleeping on the ground without being on the ladder at all, we get them up. And under this first rung, which is this transitional housing of a hotel room or of a tiny home or of a leased apartment. And then our effort is entirely focused on how we get them up to the next rung, which is how do we get them the services they need, if they need mental health support or substance misuse support, or they just need the place to apply for a job and start working in a place where they can store their stuff during the day when they're gone, then that's the step that then helps them make the income to save up the money to move into their own permanent housing unit. We know we have a shortage across the city of those kinds of affordable units. And so that's why we're, at the same time, forwarding this effort to build 3,000 permanently affordable units every year. So there is a next step for folks to move to, right now that rung on the ladder is largely missing. So we don't want people sleeping on the streets while we're building that rung. We got to get them off the streets and into transitional housing now while we build and expand the capacity for more permanently affordable units.

Q: What have you found to be the hardest part of the job? Is it trying to get everyone on the same page? Or is it trying to navigate the political process that comes along with that? What has been the hardest part so far in this 100 days?

A: I'll first say I've loved the job every day. I mean, I feel honored to get to be able to do it. And I feel like I learned something every day and get to meet someone new and incredible in Denver I didn't know before. So I don't have many complaints. I think the whenever you're doing something big, it will be hard, you know, all of the easy problems have already been solved. And so the only ones that come to my desk are the ones that a lot of really great people working hard have not been able to figure out. And so our job is to bring the community together around how we can all carry some piece of that puzzle to make it successful. And so it does mean a lot of conversations with committee members. I mean, we've had more than 40 town halls already in our first 100 days, I know that no one's ever done that before. Probably around 5,000 Denverites have shown up at this point to one of our conversations. And they have great feedback. They're excited about things, they're frustrated about things, my job is to hear both and try to integrate them. But I will say at every single one of those town halls at some point in the conversation, there is always someone who raises their hand and says, 'My only question is, how can I help? Like, what can I do to be part of the solution?' And I think that spirit is fully evident in Denver. And that's the part that gets me up again every morning to start again.

Q: The same thing, but for the homelessness situation. What would be the hardest part of attacking that issue within the city? Is it that the government doesn't move fast enough? Is it trying to get enough funding behind solutions that directly help solve that?

A: I think the really exciting part is we know this strategy works. And we've seen it work. So I think the hardest part often with a problem like this is not knowing if you know what to do, and looking for what might be the solution. We've seen it in our first encampment resolution, we'll see it in this one. It works to get people off the streets and into housing with all the wraparound services they need on that site. The challenge now is really just finding enough units fast enough to move people. And so the challenge is right now I'll go to an encampment and someone will say 'Hey, Mike, I heard you move those folks to housing, when can I go? I'm ready. Let's go today.' Or people will call and say 'Hey, why can't you move this encampment on my street now? We want to have them get access to housing too.' So the nice thing is there's an urgency once people see that it works. So they want us to do it all as fast as we can. And I think it took three years to site the first one micro community in the city that served 40 people. Were trying to serve, you know, eight or nine of those to serve 1,000 people in 100 days. It is certainly breakneck speed that has never been done before. But I think what we know is the urgency is now, we can see see the solution in front of us. It's just a matter of getting the units and getting them up and getting them ready. And I have a real sense of urgency to make that go faster. And then people are working every hour of the day as hard as humanly possible to do that.

Q: Is there anything I've not given you a chance to say.

A: While people often see our homelessness effort as the most visible part of what we're doing, I think it's really important. This is part of a broader four-step strategy that we have for the city, which is around one, getting folks that are homeless, off the streets and into housing and closing encampments. Two, building out a supply of affordable housing for people of all incomes across the city that are struggling here. Three, really focusing on public safety. So whenever you call 911, you know that someone responds, and that you're seeing crime levels drop and not increase like they have been. And the fourth is that we're really revitalizing the economy of the city and particularly of our downtown, we want downtown to be a place that Denverites love to live and work and play. And that means making sure that people have residential units that are affordable, that they can live downtown, it means that people can get to and from safely on public transit. It means that there are revitalized events that draw you back to downtown. That's why we launched this Dynamic Downtown Denver Grant Program to have people from around the city come and bring their talents and interests and passions to downtown. Whether it's a dance troupe you want to bring, or a pop-up bakery, or a ping-pong tournament you want to run. We want people to remember why they fell in love with Denver in the first place and find that passion and spark again in the city center.

Q: Any closing thoughts?

A: I guess my other lesson so far in this job has been that no one in this job is ever successful alone. Like what we found is the work that we're doing is so much bigger than just this office or just the city, and is going to take the faith community, it's going to take the nonprofit community, it's going to take the private sector, it's going to take nonprofit providers, it's going to take regular residents who say, I do want to help and I want to be part of this. I think what makes me most excited is I want people to see this as their city again, feel like they own it. They're the author of it, and they can control the direction of it. Because I have a real sense of every day increasing hope and optimism at what's possible. But it will take all of us to get there. And that's what I think is most exciting about the path ahead.

Denver Mayor Mike Johnston discusses first 100 days in office

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