What Kelly Brough and Mike Johnston plan to do about homelessness, encampments and arresting unhoused people

Both have big goals previous mayors haven’t been able to achieve.
7 min. read
Someone’s tent is pitched on a patio near Coors Field. Nov. 16, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Homelessness is among the top concerns weighing on voters' minds, and Denver mayoral candidates Kelly Brough and Mike Johnston make big promises on the issue.

Brough, the former Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce head, claims she will "eliminate sanctioned encampments within my first year in office."

Former State Sen. Johnston goes bigger, claiming "we can end homelessness in my first term."

Both are massive undertakings that previous administrations have tried and failed to do.

So how do these candidates plan to achieve what so many mayors in Denver and beyond have been unable to accomplish? We looked at the candidates' plans to find out -- and to learn how they're similar, and more importantly for voters, how they differ.

Here's what Brough and Johnston have in common.

Both frame their platforms around concern for unhoused people and business owners and home dwellers.

"More than 1,300 people are sleeping on the streets of Denver on any given night," Johnston writes in his plan. "We cannot accept this as the status quo: Not only do we have a moral obligation to make sure everyone has a place to sleep, we must also ensure all Denver residents can enjoy our public spaces, businesses, and sidewalks."

Here's how Brough puts it in her plan: "Safety and dignity for all Denverites is at the core of the Promise of Denver. Living on the streets is neither safe nor dignified -- for the people experiencing homelessness or the broader community."

They both believe in scaling up alternatives to encampments created during Mayor Michael Hancock's time in office: for Brough that's sanctioned encampments and for Johnston that's tiny homes. Both plan to convert motels and hotels into shelters.

They also believe unhoused people need access to mental health care and substance misuse treatment and plan to decentralize services and shelters across the city -- a strategy appealing to downtown residents and business owners who feel their part of town shoulders a disproportionate amount of the crisis.

Neither candidate thinks there's a singular solution for homelessness nor blames unhoused people for their situation.

Both candidates want to decrease evictions, while neither supports rent control. Nor does either support safe use sites, where people can use drugs under medical authority -- a strategy Denver City Council has allowed, in the case that state law changes, which it won't this session.

Neither uses the term "sweeps," though both have mechanisms in their policies that effectively sweep people and give law enforcement authority to arrest unhoused people in violation of the law.

Here's what makes Johnston's plan distinct.

Johnston argues three intersecting crises have led to rampant homelessness, and that if they can be addressed in a coordinated way, the issue can be solved. They are "the lack of affordable housing, the absence of mental health support, and an explosion in the severity of addictive drugs."

His big idea is to build 20 micro communities -- each comprised of 40 to 60 tiny homes or converted hotels. They'd be built on city-owned land and in partnership with faith and community organizations.

Entire encampments would be moved into each micro community, to ensure social networks stay intact. Some will allow pets. Others will cater toward women or families.

He'd pay for these micro communities through a one-time federal stimulus fund. Each unit would cost $25,000 to build. By the end of term one, he'd build 1,400 housing units, which he says is enough to end homelessness, though how that math works when there are 1,300 unhoused people on any given night -- a fraction of those experiencing homelessness in four years -- is fuzzy.

All those communities would have wrap-around services, including a mental-health-care team and trained benefit navigators who could support residents in meeting their various needs. The communities would also receive material support from churches and community groups, including food, clothing and other resources.

Johnston would also commit to weekly meetings about homelessness with various city agencies and hire a senior advisor on homelessness who would centralize the city's work and communicate with neighborhood groups. There would be one number for residents to call to have their concerns addressed.

Hancock's urban camping ban would continue to be enforced. Those who choose not to accept services would be arrested and sent to diversionary programs for mental health care or addiction treatment.

Johnston also pledges to "stop eviction and displacement," another ambitious goal that will likely cause conflict with landlords who want to be able to evict at will.

"I will sustain and make permanent critical funding streams to help tenants on the verge of eviction negotiate favorable settlements with their landlords and stay in their homes, avoiding the unnecessary and disruptive costs to tenants, landlords and our community that an eviction triggers," he writes.

He'll also invest city dollars in rapid-rehousing and transitional housing for families facing eviction.

"Any family on the verge of homelessness should have access to a viable option that works to keep them and their family housed," he writes.

Here's what makes Brough's plan distinct.

Brough argues there's not a one-size-fits-all approach to solving homelessness and no singular path to losing a home. She also acknowledges that federal funding for current programs -- part of the pandemic emergency response -- is drying up, and the city is facing a funding cliff the next mayor -- and the metro area -- will inherit.

Her approach is regional, and she'll be convening meetings between mayors across the metro area. She'll also approach the fix with private-public partnerships and input from people who have experienced homelessness.

She plans to end encampments by "maximizing the use of shelter and housing currently available" along with sanctioned camp sites, where people could stay until they secured permanent housing.

"We must recognize the public health and safety threats that emerge from long-term homeless encampments and preserve the City's authority to remove them," she said. "We must provide a variety of safe alternatives to life on the streets (detox, mental health services, shelter, housing) and support our neighbors in making the best choice."

Her plan includes improving the data the region has to understand homelessness and housing vacancy, engaging in serious data analysis work, and addressing labor shortages with homeless service providers.

She plans to update the shelters, which she acknowledges "don't work for most people," by ensuring guests have a place to secure their belongings and be with their families. She'd open them 24/7 and plans to create smaller, more disbursed shelters and convert hotels and motels into shelters.

Her administration would work to increase the amount of housing available, but first establish a goal and develop a number of units needed. She'd improve the entry system for housing and use the already existing Supportive Housing Social Impact Bond to ensure people have wrap-around services.

Brough would beef up the amount of outreach workers and improve their compensation. She'd use health-care clinics, libraries, recreation centers, busses, trains and transit stations to connect people with resources where they're at. She'd also ensure unhoused residents can eat inside.

Her approach to community safety would include arresting people who are a danger to themselves or others and providing them with support and safety programs. Brough would increase the number of mental-health and substance-misuse treatment facilities.

Her administration would also work on preventing homelessness in the first place through rent assistance programs and master lease housing pools. She'd also partner with landlords, employers and others to help identify people at risk of losing their homes and then help them find stability.

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