By Kelly Werthmann
DENVER (CBS4) – Homelessness in Denver is the most complex issue Mayor Michael Hancock said he has faced while in office.
The city has received a lot of criticism for the homeless sweeps downtown, so Hancock asked to sit down with CBS4’s Kelly Werthmann to discuss what else the city is doing to help the thousands of men, women and children in need.
“We’ve kind of lost the message that this is a city that has gone way above to do what we can to service those who are homeless,” he said. “There’s a tremendous amount of resources being put toward it and I want the public to know that this is not a city or a cadre of nonprofits that’s just sitting back and not doing what they can.”
In 2016, the City and County of Denver will spend more than $47 million on homelessness-related programs, continuing its effort to provide more and better services. Hancock said the city’s approach is “service first” in order to connect individuals with the necessary services they need to create a more stable life, including housing.
“One is the co-responder program where we have social workers in the cars of police officers, with officers, helping to direct individuals where they need to be as opposed to jail,” he said. “In one instance, we contacted 800 individuals of which only 29 went to jail. What we’re doing is recognizing the behavioral health challenges that some of our individuals have in our community.”
The mayor also touched on the Social Impact Bond Program, launched earlier this year, aimed at transitioning people living on the streets into housing. The goal is to place 250 chronic homeless people into permanent housing.
“That’s coupled with the $150 million homeless housing program that the City of Denver, city council and the partnership with my office just passed,” Hancock added. “There’s extraordinary services in place and we’re not done.”
With one of the harshest winter seasons hitting Denver, Hancock also said a high number of homeless people are turning to shelters for a warm place to stay.
“Over 3,000 people are being sheltered in the city per night. No one is being turned away,” he said.
Yet some homeless advocates tell CBS4 that is not necessarily the case.
“You can’t just walk and drop in on a shelter and have a place to stay,” said Leslie Foster, president of The Gathering Place, a drop-in center for homeless women and families.
Foster said many homeless people have jobs, but still struggle to afford a place to live. While at work, she added, some miss the scheduled times shelters set up for homeless people to line up for space to stay. They also miss the shuttles the city offers to take people to shelters. On top of that, Foster mentioned the city is sweeping away the makeshift homes some people have downtown.
“People feel terrible, people feel devalued,” Foster said. “Compassion is recognizing that and dealing with the pain, but we don’t deal with the pain very well by just making them invisible.”
Hancock said the urban camping ordinance was never designed to be a solution to homelessness. It was a matter of public safety.
“It was really meant to say to everyone in the city, whether you are recreationally wanting to camp in the city or you are faced with the challenges of homelessness and you want to camp out, ‘We don’t allow that in the city of Denver. It’s not healthy, it’s not safe, it’s not sanitary, and we’re not going to permit it in the city of Denver,’” he said.
The mayor said Denver is a compassionate city, but admits missteps have been made and there is more to be done. With that, Hancock said, it will take the entire community to find a solution to the complex issue of homelessness.
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“I think we make a mistake thinking it’s government’s job alone to solve this issue. Government cannot solve this alone,” Hancock said. “We are part of the solution, and this has to be kind of a call for a collaborative approach for every segment of society to address this issue.”
Kelly Werthmann joined the CBS4 team in 2012 as the morning reporter, covering national stories like the Aurora Theater Shooting and devastating Colorado wildfires. She now anchors CBS4 Weekend Morning News and reports during the week. Connect with her on Facebook or Twitter @KellyCBS4.