DENVER — Keith Barhams has an intimate knowledge of Denver’s streets. He’s spent the past 11 years living outside after a divorce left him homeless.
Today, he walks with a limp after he was hit by a car last year at 14th Avenue and Federal Boulevard. On most days, he doesn’t know where his meal will come from or when he’ll get to take a shower.
He’s not able to stay at most of the shelters around the Denver area. And he says that even if he could get into housing, the rent prices are so high that he couldn’t afford to eat.
“How are you supposed to live?” he said.
Barhams’ story is not a unique one as Denver’s unhoused population continues to grow, despite a stark increase in the city’s housing and homeless budget since 2019, according to data obtained and analyzed by Denver7 Investigates.
A point-in-time survey that captures a one-night snapshot of homeless in cities conducted in January 2022 counted 4,794 people living on Denver’s streets. That represents a 44% increase over the same survey’s results five years earlier.
“The problem that we’re addressing is worse,” said Benjamin Dunning, historian for Denver Homeless Out Loud, a nonprofit advocacy group.
In 2022, Denver budgeted $152,306,150 for housing and homelessness. That number grew to $180,948,669 for 2023, a 19% increase. In 2019, that budget was only $73,159,330, less than half what was budgeted last year.
Dunning said that money is making a difference, but there is still a long way to go.
“We’re putting hundreds of millions of dollars into a billion-dollar problem that is growing,” he said. “Denver is spending what they can, but it isn’t enough.”
At the root of the homeless issue is housing, Dunning says, and he believes that every dollar not spent on housing or keeping people housed is misappropriated.
Figures from the city’s Department of Housing Stability show 53% of the city’s 2023 budget is going to address affordable housing. Roughly 41% will fund shelters and services while the remainder pays for administrative costs. That 53% toward housing does represent an uptick over previous years.
“One of the major things that most cities do is they try to hide the homeless rather than house the homeless,” Dunning said, referring to shelters.
Britta Fisher, until recently the executive director of Denver’s Department of Housing Stability, says she believes Denver still needs to invest in both shelters and housing.
“I think the purpose of shelters is to provide a humane response to people who are in a housing crisis,” she said. “I don’t see it as hiding.”
When she spoke with Denver7 Investigates, Fisher was still Denver’s chief housing officer. She has since left the position to become CEO of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.
During an interview with Denver7 Investigates, Fisher said balancing the money between housing and shelters is one of the department’s greatest struggles.
Other cities, such as Houston, have committed to more budget dollars for data-based, housing-first approaches with some success. In Houston, the city has moved more than 25,000 unhoused directly into apartments and housing. Since 2011, its point-in-time survey count of unhoused individuals has dropped by 63%.
Fisher says defunding shelters in Denver is not as realistic because of the cold winters.
“I don’t think it’s acceptable for us to say it’s OK for people to be dying outside. And I don’t think the people of Denver find that OK,” she said.
However, she does believe the city can do better in the coming years and can virtually end homelessness.
“I believe we can. I know we can because we’ve seen it happen in other communities,” she said. “I think Denver can be poised to be one of the large cities to get that functional zero where we see as many people coming into housing crises as we see people served by housing.”