With Denver’s April 4 municipal election fast approaching, some candidates for mayor are making broad promises around one of Denver’s top issues: homelessness.

Research by the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative has shown that first-time homelessness in metro Denver nearly doubled during the pandemic, and rental prices in Denver are still rising, despite affordability concerns and inflation. Now, a crowded pool of candidates vying to succeed Michael Hancock as the city’s chief executive—there are 17 people running for mayorappears split over how to address the growing number of Denverites without a home. Former state senator Mike Johnston, for example, has vowed to end unsheltered homelessness during his first term if elected using a plan that includes moving tent campers into tiny homes and converted hotels. Rival and former CEO of Denver Metro Chamber Kelly Brough has promised to “eliminate unsanctioned encampments” even sooner—within her first year in office—and says that would include enforcing Denver’s contentious camping ban and, as a “last resort,” arresting houseless people who are unwilling to temporarily relocate to a sanctioned camping site or treatment center.

Without getting into the specifics of every candidate’s plan, Mile High voters are faced with a wide variety of promises around addressing homelessness (some enforcement-heavy, some assistance-heavy). But having hosted one mayoral debate, watched others, and read through candidates’ proposals, Terese Howard of Housekeys Action Network Denver (HAND) has noticed something that’s often missing from candidates’ messages: any direct evidence from unhoused people themselves.

“By and large, most of the candidates aren’t talking to [people experiencing homelessness],” Howard says.

A screenshot from the Housekeys Action Network Denver’s (HAND) 2023 “Pipe Dreams and Picket Fences” report. Photo courtesy of HAND

That’s one reason why HAND and the Western Regional Advocacy Project have invited all mayoral and city council candidates to review their just-released, 130-page report called “Pipe Dreams and Picket Fences,” based upon a survey of 828 current and recently houseless people in Denver. Conducted between March and April 2022, the survey represents responses from nearly a fifth of Denver’s total homeless population as reported by the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative’s 2022 Point In Time Count. As the HAND report notes, “to our knowledge, this is the largest houseless surveyed population in Denver.”

Among the survey’s top findings? Over 93 percent of unhoused Denverites surveyed say they want housing—which Howard says dispels the pervasive and dangerous misconception that many people experiencing homelessness want to be unhoused. “That myth perpetuates homelessness,” Howard says. “That myth perpetuates the idea that we have to use criminal measures to push people out of sight instead of getting people housing.”

The biggest cause contributing to homelessness, according to the survey results, is a lack of affordable places to rent in Denver, despite a majority of survey participants saying that they can contribute some amount of income to their housing.

“A lot of people can pay something for their housing,” Howard says. “It’s just we don’t have options that meet people’s incomes.”

With the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Denver currently hovering around $1,700, Howard points out that rents have also outpaced the money available through federally-funded housing vouchers—one of the main mechanisms used by cities like Houston, as well as Denver’s current mayoral administration, to house low-income individuals. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) places limits on the rental prices of properties that qualified voucher-holders can redeem them for. For the Denver metro area in 2022, those voucher rental costs were capped at $1,364 for a one-bedroom home and $1,659 for a two-bedroom home—in both cases, below Denver’s median market rental rate.

A screenshot from the Housekeys Action Network Denver’s (HAND) 2023 report, “Pipe Dreams and Picket Fences.” Photo courtesy of HAND

That cost disconnect has contributed to an abysmal rate of voucher use in Denver. According to data obtained by the Denver Post, between September 2021 and January 2022, only 77 individuals out of 1,000 names pulled in Denver’s housing lottery successfully found eligible housing and redeemed HUD vouchers. Close to 20,000 individuals had originally applied for that housing lottery.

Yet housing affordability and the difficulty of using vouchers are not the only considerations among Denverites struggling with homelessness; Howard also highlights how most all respondents said they’d prefer to end up in housing that’s safe, affords them autonomy (including privacy as well as the ability to host guests), and has amenities like climate control and private bathrooms.

While these housing features may seem basic, they are usually not found in shelters or most short-term housing solutions like tiny homes, Safe Outdoor Spaces (SOS), or even some supportive housing programs offered through nonprofit organizations, which often enforce rules around curfews and guest visits, and can even have religious requirements for participants.

Coupled with survey participants’ reported fears of thefts and threats to their physical safety within shelters and supportive housing programs, this data may explain why some unhoused individuals stay in their own tents where they have more control and autonomy. The stated need for dignified housing also underscores why the approach (as some mayoral candidates are proposing) of using Denver’s camping ban to force all individuals into shelters or other short-term housing options may not be a realistic vision for permanently reducing homelessness. In fact, one survey respondent interviewed by HAND said that they had a HUD voucher taken away once it was discovered that they had an outstanding warrant for a camping ban ticket.

A screenshot from the Housekeys Action Network Denver’s (HAND) 2023 report, “Pipe Dreams and Picket Fences.” Photo courtesy of HAND

“This isn’t just about four walls and a roof,” Howard says about survey respondents’ needs. “It’s also about housing having the kind of autonomy and freedom and ability to have community that any normal person wants.”

Of course, with so many socioeconomic factors surrounding homelessness, are these housing wants, as some survey respondents suggested, all a “pipe dream”?

HAND lists 35 action items in the conclusion of its report that can make housing more accessible, which include straightforward steps like limiting credit checks for renters to more ambitious proposals like making housing a public good.

“We need to fund and create more housing that is public—whether that happens at the city, state, or federal level,” Howard says. “All the ways that you see housing for low-income people being addressed right now is through measures like vouchers and rental assistance. But all of those things have to do with putting money in the hands of developers and landlords, and not actually changing the housing market so it’s kept affordable.”

The new report suggests that Denver’s future mayoral administration will need to think beyond the tools that are already being used and take bold steps to address the overall housing climate in the Mile High City. But will HAND’s report and its recommendations make a dent in the upcoming election?

Howard isn’t sure, but she does say that all mayoral and city council candidates were invited to the report’s release event on March 8.

“If you want to talk about housing, if you want to talk about homelessness, if you want to talk about what people actually need,” Howards says, “well, then here’s what we need. We talked to almost a thousand houseless people, and here’s what they said.”

You can read the full “Pipe Dreams and Picket Fences” report on HAND’s website. The next mayoral debate will be hosted by 9News on March 14.

Chris Walker
Chris Walker
Chris writes for various sections of 5280 as well as 5280.com.