Jul 26, 2023 - News

How Mayor Johnston plans to house 1,000 people in 5 months

Mayor Mike Johnston gives an update on homelessness in his office on Tuesday. Photo: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Mayor Mike Johnston plans to start clearing homeless encampments posing health and safety threats, sitting on private land or blocking public rights of way, the newly sworn leader said this week.

Why it matters: Johnston campaigned on ending homelessness in four years by tackling the growing crisis differently — but some critics are questioning whether he's following the same controversial playbook as his predecessor.

Driving the news: This week, Johnston unveiled new details about his ambitious plan to house 1,000 people — 70% of the city's unsheltered population — by the end of the year.

  • Since declaring homelessness an emergency last week in a move aimed at expediting affordable housing projects, he has now launched Denver's emergency operation center, deploying about 50 city employees to work on finding funding and living arrangements.
  • As spaces come online — like empty rental units, converted hotels, repurposed commercial buildings and tiny-home villages — encampments across the city will also be cleared, Johnston said at a press conference Tuesday. City workers are already talking to the homeless population and preparing people to move into housing.

What they're saying: He's calling the tent removal process "decommissioning," a term taken from a similar strategy in Houston, Johnston told reporters.

  • He insists it's "very different" than how encampment clearings were handled under previous Mayor Michael Hancock, because people experiencing homelessness will be offered shelter and services before being disbanded.

The other side: Hancock has said that shelter and support for unhoused residents were also offered under his administration.

  • Meanwhile, skepticism remains whether "decommission" is another word for "sweep," a term homeless advocates used to describe the process during Hancock's tenure, and which often resulted in people simply shuffling to another city block.
  • "[M]eet the new boss, same as the old boss, i guess," Andy McNulty, a prominent civil rights attorney in Denver, tweeted about Johnston's plan.

Between the lines: Johnston has also faced pushback from council members. Some have raised concerns about the unclear impact of his emergency declaration based on other cities, like Portland and Los Angeles, where similar measures have seen mixed results.

  • It's also unclear how much the new plan will cost — Johnston estimates a "ballpark" of at least $40 million, but couldn't provide hard figures.

What's next: The city is applying for private, local, state and federal funding to go towards housing options. Johnston is also kicking off a series of town halls in each of Denver's 11 council districts to meet with residents about current and future homelessness strategies.

What we're watching: The clock. Johnston has five months to achieve his goal of housing 1,000 people — and the race to lock down enough units to make it happen won't be easy.


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