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Questions linger about City of Denver's spending for mayor's homeless initiative

Mayor Mike Johnston's team said the city spent $10.3 million last year, about $35 million less than expected.
denver homeless
Posted at 5:34 PM, Apr 03, 2024
and last updated 2024-04-03 21:06:46-04

DENVER — DENVER — Denver Mayor Mike Johnston’s homeless initiative comes with a huge price tag, but the exact cost to the city is still somewhat of a mystery.

For months, Denver City Council members like Stacie Gilmore have been asking what the program, which has been rebranded as All In Mile High, is costing Denver taxpayers.

“I want to make sure that we're fully transparent on this so that we can be accountable to the taxpayers,” Gilmore said.

But the answers from the mayor’s office aren’t entirely clear.

The leaders running the homeless initiative appeared before the council on Wednesday and provided some additional information. They said the city spent $10.3 million on the initiative last year, about $35 million less than they were approved for. The money they didn’t spend has been carried over to this year.

The mayor’s budget calls for $39 million for hotels, micro-communities, and rapid rehousing in 2024. When combined with the money carried over from last year, it means spending on homelessness could top $75 million.

Midori Higa, who serves as director of the homelessness resolutions program for the city, said there are several reasons why it’s been difficult to pin down exact costs.

“I do have the same questions that you have,” Higa told Gilmore, who asked her about monthly operating costs at each shelter site. “There are many things that we're working on to fully understand, and I don't know that I'm going to have a good picture of that until closer to May.”

Aside from spending, council members like Kevin Flynn still have questions about the program’s overall success.

The mayor reached his goal of getting 1,000 people off the streets last year and wants to help another 1,000 people this year. While it’s proven somewhat easy for the city to move people indoors, ensuring their long-term success is another matter.

“The jury is still out in my view on 'housing first' and its success because I've seen it fall on its face,” said Flynn.

Of the 164 people who exited the program, many went back to being unhoused, were put in jail or died, according to the All In Mile High dashboard.

“When we are spending a significant amount of money on these programs, we've got to have better outcomes than a 73% negative outcome,” said Denver City Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer. “We have to improve these outcomes if we're gonna continue to spend these amount of dollars on this program.”

The mayor’s team said it is working to improve those outcomes by increasing its engagement with site providers to understand their challenges and hopes to see better results in the months ahead.

In addition, the city said it is evaluating security at each of its homeless shelter sites in the wake of two shootings at the former DoubleTree hotel shelter last month. On Tuesday, Johnston said the city was treating the matter seriously.

“We're really concerned about that. That's why we took dramatic action to increase safety at those sites. That's why we've added cameras. That's why we've added locked doors. That's why we've added security around the clock at that, those sites,” said Johnston. “We've taken dramatic steps to increase security at those sites. We'll keep doing it, keep monitoring it closely, and we're still very optimistic we can make those sites successful and safe. But we take very seriously what happened and we're now responding very seriously.”

Cole Chandler, the mayor’s senior homelessness advisor who has taken on a hands-on leadership role at the former DoubleTree following the shootings, confirmed metal detectors were recently added at the hotel shelter.

It’s not the first time council members have raised concerns about transparency. In November 2023, Gilmore resigned as chair of the council’s homelessness committee, citing a lack of transparency from the mayor’s office.

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