Denver Mayor Mike Johnston declares homelessness emergency on his first day in office
Freshly inaugurated Denver mayor Mike Johnston kicked off his term Tuesday by declaring a citywide state of emergency over homelessness and setting a goal of sheltering 1,000 unsheltered Denverites by the end of the year.
“The issue of people living unhoused on the streets is the most significant issue the city faces right now,” Johnston said at a Tuesday morning press conference. “It is a human rights challenge, because we know we have people who are right now living and dying on the streets of Denver. We know we have people who need access to support and services who can’t get them. We know it is a public health challenge. We know it is an economic development challenge.”
Johnston said the emergency declaration is a necessary piece of his plan to address homelessness because it expedites permitting and construction processes and gives officials access to special funding in the city budget. His team also plans to aggressively seek out money from state grants, the federal government and private foundations.
“To be able to identify locations, to be able to rehab them, to retrofit them, to be able to permit them to be able to get construction up on those sites, is going to take a tremendous amount of effort and speed from our internal agencies and our external partners,” he said. “The emergency declaration allows us to move much more quickly and swiftly through what would otherwise be a slower regulatory process.”
Johnston plans to house unsheltered people in existing rental apartments and hotel rooms that can be converted into housing. He also wants to build communities of tiny homes — small standalone living spaces that can be built quickly and cheaply. His administration has already identified 197 sites for potential tiny home communities.
He also emphasized the importance of providing private, unshared housing options that come with services like addiction treatment or mental health support. Unhoused people are often discouraged from seeking out congregate shelter settings because those shelters often have restrictions, such as not allowing a partner or pet.
Denver mayors have long tried, and failed, to find solutions to homelessness. Johnston will be the 26th mayor to work on the issue with the Denver Rescue Mission, the city's oldest shelter organization. Regardless, advocates for the unhoused community are welcoming the Johnston administration’s efforts.
“We're hoping that the community can rally around this new vision, this fresh vision, that Mayor Johnston has,” Denver Rescue Mission’s Stephen Hinkle said. “This is definitely a different approach. And, you know, that's why we're excited to collaborate alongside Mayor Johnson because he does recognize that this is an emergency.”
Hinkle and other advocates said the goal of getting 1,000 unsheltered people off the street this year is ambitious, but not unrealistic. They also support the emergency declaration not only because it will cut through red tape, but also because it creates a sense of urgency around the issue and helps the city take advantage of funding.
“There is, right now, a really historic moment with funding, and so we have a really critical point in time where we can leverage funding to create lasting solutions,” Dr. Jamie Rife, executive director of the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative, said. “What I'm seeing him do is really wanting to bring together people meaningfully to make sure we are all moving in the same direction with that sense of urgency.”
Advocates also said it’s imperative that Johnston follows through with his plans for collaboration on homelessness with community members and local organizations. He planned to meet with unhoused members of the community on Tuesday to directly hear their thoughts on the plan and announced a tour of Denver’s neighborhoods led by city council members that will engage residents.
Denver’s homeless population increased by more than 12% over the last two years, according to the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. In 2022, there were a total of 6,884 unhoused individuals in the city. More than 2,000 of those were unsheltered. The Common Sense Institute reports that the city spent $516 million on homelessness last year.
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