Here’s what unhoused people told Denver Mayor Mike Johnston on his first full day in office

It was Tuesday’s last — and longest — in a string of meetings about his plan to end homelessness in four years.
7 min. read
Mayor Mike Johnston holds a listening session with unhoused Denverites and homeless rights advocates at Triangle Park, across the street from the Denver Rescue Mission. July 18, 2023.
Kyle Harris/Denverite

On Tuesday afternoon, dozens of people without homes waited in Triangle Park, a fenced-off urban garden across from the Denver Rescue Mission. New Mayor Mike Johnston had scheduled a conversation about how he would house them.

But the mayor, busy with his first full day in office, was running more than half an hour late.

Some people left early, trying to get shelter beds before they filled. Others stuck it out, unsure where they would sleep that night.

Since the pandemic, the number of people living on the streets in Denver has grown. Nearly 28,000 people in the area accessed homeless services in the past year, according to the Metro Denver Housing Initiative's annual homelessness report. Outreach workers counted roughly 1,400 people living outside on a recent winter night.

While running for mayor, Johnston said he would end homelessness in four years, arguably his most ambitious campaign promise. Conversations with unhoused people, that he pledged to host weekly, will inform his approach going forward.

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Finally, Johnston arrived, coming off of a packed first full day in office entirely focused on addressing the homelessness crisis.

He and his team started the day with a meeting with his cabinet, the heads of some of the largest city departments.

Then Johnston held a short press conference, where he announced he was declaring a homeless state of emergency in the city and setting up the emergency command center to bring all the city's departments together to get people housed.

After that, Johnston met with City Council, followed by a gathering with more than 20 service providers. And then he held a land and real-estate meeting, a construction industry meeting with labor, a meeting with the faith community and another with neighborhood leaders.

"And now we're here," Cole Chandler, the mayor's newly appointed senior advisor on homelessness policy, told Denverite. "This was the longest block of time we had set aside in the day."

Johnston's administration had not invited press to the gathering. This was a conversation for the people most affected by the housing crisis -- not a public-relations stunt.

For over an hour, surrounded by dozens of people, Johnston listened and shared his vision for a fix.

He heard stories about harassment from the Denver Police and the city's Street Enforcement Team. People whose lives had been upended during sweeps grilled him about his decision to maintain the Urban Camping Ban. A few demanded the sweeps of encampments be renamed "traumatic displacement" and encouraged him to see the atrocities city workers commit against unhoused people -- something he said he has still not done and pledged to do.

He listened as people told devastating stories about the effects of the high costs of living and education, the consequences of eviction and the city's longstanding failure to get people housed -- or even access to water, a toilet or a trash can.

"We declared a state of emergency in the City and County of Denver around homelessness and folks who are unhoused and that need access to housing," Johnston said. "We did that for a couple of reasons. One is, it's going to help us draw resources to the city that we can use to help support people getting access to housing, both using our city resources, using state dollars, using federal dollars. And also because it will help us build housing and units a lot more quickly."

With the state of emergency in effect, he believes housing that would normally take nine months to build can be created in 30 days.

"The goal we have set is to try to get 1,000 people who are currently unhoused into housing before the end of this year," Johnston said. "So that's in the next about six months."

He calls his plan "Home for the Holidays," because everybody wants to have a home around the holidays.

"We're focused on folks that right now are in the toughest of circumstances, that are unsheltered, that are living on the street and want to get access to housing," he said.

His approach includes converting hotels into permanent housing. He's pushing landlords to rent empty units to people experiencing homelessness. He's trying to make it easier to build housing. And he's found nearly 200 sites to create tiny home villages and safe outdoor spaces with showers, restrooms, kitchens and wraparound services where people can access care while they wait for full-time homes.

"It's a moral obligation," Johnston said. "We have to make sure everybody in the city can get access to housing. And we are all in -- with our time, our energy, our resources -- to be partners with you to make it happen."

Ray Charles Jones has been experiencing homelessness for a year and six months. He's been staying at the Denver Rescue Mission and is waiting for housing that seems to never come.

"I've been waiting here for a year, six months," Jones said. "And I'm still waiting. Now I just want to know if I can get your attention. I just want to know if they can get me a place as soon as possible for everybody that's been here for a year and six months... Winter time's coming up real soon. We got to be in some type of shelter."

"We don't have another year and six months for you to wait," Johnston replied. "That's not fair. It's not appropriate. So we've got to get this housing built quickly. And we've got to make it available quickly."

Other people in the crowd spoke about how caseworkers at government programs and nonprofits have let them down. One woman shared her experience of eviction from an income-restricted housing unit and how she racked up $6,000 in related expenses that made staying housed an impossibility.

"Say we get a thousand people housed and they all face landlords that proceed with eviction. How are we gonna protect them?" another person asked.

"The best thing we could do to prevent homelessness and stop people from getting into it in the first place is making sure people that have housing can keep it and they don't get pushed out of it," Johnston responded. "And that means avoiding evictions...

"What we want to do is invest far more on the front end to make sure we have people that are in housing stay in housing," Johnston explained. "Because it's much less expensive for you and or for the city to have to get you into new housing than to keep what you got."

He pledged all city staff would treat people with respect, be responsive to people's needs and answer calls.

A resident of the Rodeway Inn, a non-congregate shelter slated to shut down on August 24, raised concerns about losing housing.

"We are focused on that," Johnston said. "We're wanting to make sure people that get displaced from that have someplace else to go. That is important. We're committed to working with you on making sure that happens."

People raised concerns about the lack of public restrooms.

And when people raised loud concerns about the brutality of police and the unarmed, civilian Street Enforcement Team -- an alternative to police that addresses quality of life issues in encampments -- he said he'd look into it.

Hospital stays, incarceration and sweeps waste city money, Jerry Burton argued. "We don't need all of these things if we just house people."

Some said groups feeding unhoused people have been targeted by Denver Police and Parks and Recreation park rangers, and the city is putting up barriers to make it harder for them to help.

Cesar Pulido, who gives free haircuts at the weekly Mutual Aid Monday gathering for people experiencing homelessness, asked why the city's making it hard for him to give people something as simple as a haircut.

"When you're going out of your way to help people, you expect us to thank you for that," Johnston said. "Thank you for what you're doing. You're a model for what all of our citizens should do."

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