Denver City Council members pooled $330,000 from their office budgets to get migrant children off city streets. It’s not even close to enough

Officials found at least 38 kids sleeping in tents on Wednesday.
6 min. read
Kids run across the street, in the middle of an encampment near Zuni Street and Speer Boulevard, as city officials take a headcount of people staying there. Nov. 15, 2023.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Kids giggled and bounced in the street as City Council member Amanda Sandoval and her staff went tent-to-tent, trying find out how many of them were sleeping on the sidewalk.

Migrants who timed out of a city-operated motel on the block - or were kicked out for rule violations - have been hunkered down here for weeks. But there haven't been this many children present until now. By the time they were done with their Wednesday census, Sandoval's office had counted 138 people, 38 of them kids. They played hide-and-seek and scootered around her staff as they worked.

Sandoval told us Denver's Street Enforcement Team was supposed to do the count, but they brought police and, following them, activists and press. So she decided she needed to be present, to correct the day's trajectory and get the numbers figured out.

But this was just in preparation for a future emergency, the council member told us. She didn't have anywhere to send those children, at least for now.

"What if there was below-zero weather that suddenly came in, how many people would we have to get out of this encampment?" she said, describing her mission for the day.

Alessandra Dominguez, aide to City Council member Amanda Sandoval, speaks with residents of an encampment near Zuni Street and Speer Boulevard. Nov. 15, 2023.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Denver is struggling to house a lot of people right now, including U.S. citizens, residents and people who have trekked from places like Venezuela for better lives in recent weeks and months.

Sandoval said she doesn't have the power to reshape Mayor Mike Johnston's $4 billion budget that was approved this week, so she's instead looking to what she can control: her own office budget.

She told us she asked her colleagues to pitch in, to shore up more resources for shelter.

"Instead of furniture, they're going to give to this. Instead of going on a trip, they would give to this. Instead of paying for supplies for your staff, you would give [to this]," she said.

In all, she said council members pooled $330,000. 11 of 13 members had money left to add to the pot; City Council executive director Bonita Roznos also contributed.

City Council member Amanda Sandoval speaks with police as she attempts to count the number of people – and children – staying in an encampment of migrants near Zuni Street and Speer Boulevard. Nov. 15, 2023.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

That money won't go too far, though, as the city's spending on migrants the past year shows. Meanwhile, advocates are incensed that the city hasn't done more.

A spokesperson with Mayor Johnston's office said Denver has spent more than $30 million accommodating migrant arrivals since late last year. Hotels, like the one next door, cost up to $2 million a week to operate when they're at their 3,000-person capacity.

Sandoval's gesture might only fund about 16% of that weekly cost, roughly a day's worth of service.

"We are grateful for any and all support we receive," the spokesperson wrote to Denverite. "That's true whether we receive it from council or from private donors, who have given hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Newcomers Fund."

Activists who arrived at the camp off Zuni Street on Wednesday weren't impressed with Sandoval's plan. Johnston, some said, should pull out all the stops.

"You should be finding everything you possibly can to help these people," V Reeves, an advocate with Housekeys Action Network Denver, said as they handed out food and clothing. "When you have the audacity to include a $2-milion-for-pickleball budget line in next year (see page 759), don't tell me you don't have the money."

V Reeves speaks with Oriana Fuentes as they hand aid out to an encampment of migrants near Zuni Street and Speer Boulevard. Nov. 15, 2023.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

In the past few weeks, regular residents have poured in aid, delivering supplies and working to give camp residents ways to make money. Reeves, and others we've spoken with, say they should not need to cover the city's visible absence on the issue. Without some intervention, they worry would-be human traffickers might descend upon people sleeping here, or worse, that a little kid might end up dead.

"That's a reality that's totally impending," Reeves told us. "We have never been in a position, as advocates before, where we're literally bringing baby items and clothes and concerned about actual babies being in the cold."

Mayor Johnston has asked Congress and President Joe Biden for more money to offset costs and accommodate people coming, as well as faster pathways to work legally once they arrive. So far, the city says they've been reimbursed for some expenses: $3.5 million from the State of Colorado and $909,000 from the federal government. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security also announced Denver will receive an additional $9 million from federal budgets.

Julia Vazquez (center), her daughter Oriana Fuentes and grandson Eithan stand outside of the Zuni Street hotel where they've been staying for a few weeks. They worry that they'll end up in an encampment across the street once they have to leave. Nov. 15, 2023.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

While the weather is warm, people living in and around the encampment were mostly just looking for jobs or food, but they know things won't be this balmy forever.

Julia Vazquez, who will be allowed a little more time in the nearby motel with her children and grandchildren, said she's worried about the coming day they might also need to find a tent to live in.

"Yes," she told us in Spanish. "I have four children, and one of them who's 17, suffers from asthma."

Sandoval said she hopes more money to help families like Vasquez's before they end up in a tougher situation.

"I wish we could go to the U.S. Mint and print more money," she told us. "We can't, and so we are doing everything we can."

A young girl runs on an apartment wall above an encampment near Zuni Street and Speer Boulevard, where at least 38 children were living on Nov. 15, 2023.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

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