Nov 6, 2023 - News

Mayor Mike Johnston admits making "mistake" within homelessness strategy

Illustration of a tent with a padlock around it.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

Mayor Mike Johnston acknowledged he may not meet his ambitious goal of housing 1,000 people experiencing homelessness by the end of the year.

  • He also admitted he made "a mistake" in the way he's measuring that target.

Why it matters: Johnston campaigned on a promise he likely can't keep, which could damage the first-time mayor's credibility.

What he's saying: It's "important to set really ambitious goals" so the public can "hold us accountable," and to "mobilize" resources to "provide the urgency … the situation deserves," Johnston told us.

State of play: He became the first Denver mayor to issue an emergency declaration for homelessness when he stepped into office in July. The issue has consumed his first 100 days in office.

Driving the news: Johnston spoke with Axios Denver late last week to talk about how his strategy is working and what challenges lie ahead.

Here are four things we learned:

800: Johnston needs to house roughly 800 more people by the end of December to achieve his goal.

  • "If we don't reach 1,000, it's not actually a game where we … win or we lose," he said. "The work continues, regardless of how well we do by Dec. 31."

Measuring success: According to the city, if a person returns to the street after being in a shelter for 14 days, they're still counted toward Johnston's goal. That metric was a "mistake," the mayor told us.

  • His administration wanted to be "far more ambitious" than the federal deadline, which is just one night, but it's "not at all the complete target," Johnston said.

Camping bans: The Johnston administration is enforcing a camping ban in areas where encampments have been decommissioned and its residents have been rehoused.

  • "When we close these encampments, by moving people to housing, those encampments are closed and those blocks are closed to future camping," he said.

Using micro-communities: City-provided micro-communities, including tiny home villages and safe outdoor camping sites, will offer — but won't require — its residents to receive addiction support, mental health support and workforce training.

  • The Johnston administration has decided not to build a micro-community in southeast Denver due to community opposition.
  • Homeless encampments generate more than 8,000 911 calls a year, Johnston told us.

What we're watching: Johnston's hopeful he can still achieve his goal, with many new housing options coming online in the next two months. "We will have a very busy December," he told us.

  • Johnston plans to house another 1,000 people in 2024.

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