Homelessness: The Facts & Plan No One in 300 Debate is Talking About

About four or five times per week, I get to hear the debate about Initiative 300, which would create a right to camp in any publicly available space. They finish and then I’m given one minute to describe a plan to end homelessness during a candidate forum on a range of issues. Unless you’ve attended one of my house parties (which you really should!), I’m not hearing a real dialogue on the facts about what IS working to intervene in homelessness. And what we really need to do to make a MUCH bigger impact. So, consider this your invitation. Yes, I’ll talk about 300, scroll ahead if you’re impatient. But for those seeking some new facts and answers, focused on transforming lives, consider taking it all in and letting me know what you think.

I often volunteer at Denver’s annual Project Homeless Connect, which has connected 16,000 individuals experiencing homelessness with housing, medical, employment and other services since 2006.  

My experience on this topic spans more than twenty years, beginning as a high school volunteer in a shelter for families, registering homeless folks to vote (you don’t need a home to register!), and years working with women whose homelessness was caused by domestic violence. While much of the focus right now is on chronically homeless individuals living on the street, we can’t forget the need for strategies to support the growing number of women and families experiencing this crisis, typically out of sight,  which the 300 debate completely ignores.

Sound research demonstrates that we do know how to end homelessness, and housing is a key. While shelter saves lives, it may not work well for individuals with pets, partners from whom they don’t want to be separated, or others. But out of 250 individuals offered housing in Denver’s “housing first”, services + housing model, only one individual refused housing. Housing reduced health and criminal justice crises for participants, thus also reducing community impacts, and was successful for more than 80% of participants.

This success is why 20-25% of the housing fund I helped create is targeted for moving households out of homelessness into housing, including “supportive services” like counseling and substance treatment. And it’s why half of the $105 million bond done in partnership with Denver Housing Authority, $50 million, is dedicated to land for housing first/supportive housing for those exiting homelessness and our lowest income families.  

But we should not wait until someone is already homeless, we can and must prevent it. That’s why I created an eviction defense program with unanimous help from all council members to help prevent families from losing their homes, and why we ensured a portion of the housing fund provides emergency rental assistance, keeping more than 1,000 families from losing their housing to-date. And these are just a few outcomes. 7,552 folks have exited homelessness since 2011 through other city programs like Denver’s Road Home, Denver Street Outreach Collective, and OneHome. And hundreds are earning a living wage and finding permanent work through Denver Day Works.

While we honor the lives transformed by these successes, and celebrate a new shelter with supportive housing for homeless women and trans folks opened by the Delores project last week, my heart breaks every day for those still living on our streets. And I go to sleep and wake up thinking about my work to intervene. If I’m re-elected with your support the plan below is one I’ll continue to work. But I don’t just need your vote, our community will have to work together and step up to overcome barriers to achieving these goals:

1) I’m launching a community engagement project to help build bridges that address and overcome community concerns about supportive housing and other critical homeless services, led by neighborhood leaders and housing residents themselves.

2) We must better utilize our emergency shelter spaces as a pipeline into supportive housing, with more housing counseling services, and transform coordination of existing shelter systems. Centralized intake and coordinated transportation could have a significant impact on the queing for services that impacts quality of life both for clients and neighborhoods. Denver owns only one shelter, and provides only a small amount of funding to the rest of the city’s shelters, so we can’t wave a wand to do this — we’ll need new funding and serious collaboration from our non-profit partners. 

3) We must provide a saner, safer and more regulated approach to those caught between shelter and housing. That’s not encampments everywhere without services, that’s regulated villages with restrooms, clean water, trash collection and services. That’s why I’m working on an ordinance to reduce the onerous review process that has limited the stability and growth of the successful tiny home model. A better, regulated village model to serve more folks currently camped out will require new funding not currently being provided. 

4) We need to continue to invest and speed the pace of supportive housing. As described above, we have significant funding available for this housing. But it still isn’t easy, the state only allows providers to build one building at a time, so we need to actively facilitate the growth of new/more partnerships to build this housing. And last year a critical Denver project was turned down for state tax credits, stopping it in its tracks, so we must pass pending state legislation proposed by Rep. Brianna Titone to grow the state tax credits and expand other state funding to pair with our local dollars. And though the housing fund includes some dollars for services, we must grow these dollars and move them much, much faster. 

5) Though my proposal might differ slightly, I also support the suggestions and expertise of the providers who issued a similar statement recently.

Where did I stand on the camping ban? I led the opposition on the council floor, voted against it, because of concern it would disperse those experiencing homelessness, increasing risks to them and impacts on communities. And it has. So I still don’t support it. But the plan above is the set of answers we need to be working on, unregulated camping isn’t the answer for moving anyone into housing. I’m not participating in any campaign around 300, because neither side is talking about proven solutions or standing up to advocate for the funding and policies we need. But I am. And I hope you’ll stand with me. I look forward to your feedback and questions.

Forward. Together.

Sincerely,
Robin Kniech

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