By Brian Maass
DENVER (CBS4)– A CBS4 Investigation has found that the City of Denver used thousands of dollars in public donations intended to help Denver’s homeless with food, shelter and counseling to instead pay costs associated with a sweep of the homeless population out of Denver’s Ballpark neighborhood in March.
“I think when people give money to the city to help the homeless they fully anticipate that’s what those funds will be used for,” said Cathy Alderman with Colorado’s Coalition for the Homeless. “I think the public who donated here would be very disappointed.”
The CBS4 Investigation found that when city administrators were planning the March sweep, they immediately wanted to use donations that had been made to Denver’s Road Home to assist the homeless population.
In a series of city emails obtained by CBS4, city officials from the mayor’s office, public works and a host of other city agencies grappled behind the scenes with an anticipated bill of nearly $60,000 to pay an environmental company to move, store and redistribute personal property confiscated from homeless men and women during the sweep.
Jose Cornejo, the executive director of Denver Public Works, emailed his fellow city administrators Feb. 11, “We do not have in our budget a line item this extra cost to handle personal item, storage and distribution.”
Brendan Hanlon, the City of Denver Chief Financial Officer, responded on Feb. 12,” We can charge off these costs to the homeless donations fund.”
The group email went to the Mayor’s Chief of Staff Evan Dreyer, Cornejo and several other ranking city officials.
“Sounds like a plan,” wrote Cornejo within an hour.
The homeless donation fund is part of Denver’s Road Home, a city managed and administered program which solicits donations saying those public donations will be used to provide food, shelter and counseling for Denver’s homeless.
Some of the money in the homeless donation fund comes from “Donation Meters” set up around the city and at Denver International Airport. People put their spare change in the meters to help the homeless.
On the Denver Road Home website, the organization says money put in the donation meters “will be dedicated to mental health and substance abuse services in our community.” At another spot on the Denver Road Home website, it says money put in the donation meters totals about $100,000 per year and is used for meals, job training, housing “and other programs for those in need.”
The DRH website states “No money at all goes to the City of Denver.”
But according to invoices and work orders obtained by CBS4, city administrators earmarked $59,509.40 from the homeless donation fund to pay an Arvada company for property removal and storage of belongings from the homeless.
“Well I think it’s appalling,” said Denise Maes, public policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union which has been staunchly opposed to homeless sweeps. “People who give money to help the homeless believe their money is being spent the way they want it to be. This is clearly an abuse of the public trust.”
When CBS4 began asking questions about using donation dollars to evict the homeless, city officials put an immediate stop to what they were doing.
Mayor Michael Hancock told CBS4, ”This was one of those administrative snafus you picked up on… and we’ve already corrected it thanks to your investigation and its done and we move on.”
Hancock said he was unaware that donations had been used to help pay for the sweep until he learned of it from the CBS4 Investigation.
“I don’t think it was mal-intent on anyone’s part,” said the Mayor. “Someone may have looked at that fund and said “this seems appropriate,” but when you called it to our attention we took a closer look. It’s been corrected.”
Sue Cobb, a spokesperson for the city, said the actual cost that was going to be drawn out of the homeless donation fund was $76,289.11. She said when CBS4 began asking questions, $10,740 had already been paid out of the homeless donation fund to the Arvada contractor, Custom Environmental Services. But she said Denver’s Public Works department will repay that amount into the homeless donation fund and the balance of the costs will also be paid by Public Works.
Although Hancock termed it an administrative snafu, Maes took a darker view.
“I certainly don’t buy the fact it’s a mistake. You caught them. They say ‘That doesn’t look good.’ I think that’s a whitewash,” said Maes.
Alderman questioned if what CBS4 found would make people less likely to donate to Denver’s efforts to curb homelessness.
“If you have an administration using funds in a questionable way of course you are going to decrease confidence in the process,” said Alderman.
Amber Miller, a spokesperson for Hancock, said it was important to note that only about three percent of the money in the homeless donation fund comes from public donations. She said the other 97 percent is derived from federal funds.