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Mike Johnston’s campaign promise was already lofty: ending unsheltered homelessness within his first term if elected mayor. Since being sworn in, Johnston has only doubled down on his commitment to addressing homelessness with a pledge to house 1,000 people who’ve been living on the streets by the end of this year.
As summer turns to fall, the new mayor has been making moves. His administration recently announced that the city would dedicate $48.6 million to bolster his short-term “House1000” campaign, with funding going toward buying and leasing hotels to convert into housing units and building so-called micro-communities, another pillar of Johnston’s homelessness strategy.
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Denverites who followed the 2023 mayoral election may remember Johnston’s campaign promise to build 20 micro-communities—which often consist of tiny homes or pallet structures—as part of his overall plan to end homelessness. Recently, his office announced the proposed locations of 11 such sites. Reactions have been mixed, with some neighbors voicing concerns over the locations.
For Johnston’s senior adviser for homelessness resolution, Cole Chandler, this range of responses is nothing new. Chandler previously headed up the Colorado Village Collaborative (CVC), which oversaw Denver’s first tiny home villages, and before joining Johnston’s administration, he oversaw homeless initiatives at the Colorado Department of Human Services. In a recent interview with 5280, Chandler discussed the focus on micro-communities, how the he’s responding to concerns over these communities, and the role this House1000 campaign plays in the mayor’s broader homelessness vision.
Editor’s note: The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
5280: Mayor Johnston has mentioned micro-communities often, both during his campaign and his initial months as mayor. Can you explain more about what they are?
Cole Chandler: A micro-community is a neighborhood of small homes, which are usually about 100 square feet with a door, roof, window, air conditioning and heating. These homes provide someone their own private space while they’re transitioning from homelessness to permanent housing. The model started in Denver in 2017 and was a community-driven effort led by people on the streets who were looking for a place to have dignity and safety. And we helped launch that at Colorado Village Collaborative [first with tiny home villages], and it’s a plan that the mayor ran on and wants to scale up.
How do micro-communities address the problem of homelessness?
When we think about homelessness, there are a number of ways it’s addressed in our community. The long-term solution to homelessness is having permanently affordable housing at the scale that our crisis demands. But we [as a city] have sort of patched together a system that includes emergency shelters, and those shelters are busting at the seams; they’re around 95 percent full or higher on a nightly basis. And then there are a number of people for whom the existing shelter system doesn’t work, so we have about 1,400 people that are outdoors, living in encampments and in the public space each night. Micro-communities and hotel conversions and the leased-unit strategies that we’re exploring are aimed at those particular populations that are staying outside in encampments. What we’re trying to do is deploy a model where we’re able to go encampment by encampment, and instead of closing a camp and moving people down the street and saying “we have nowhere for you to go,” we’ll now be able to say, “we have a better place for you.”
The city recently tried offering housing to people moved during a sweep near the Governor’s Mansion for the first time on September 26, correct?
Yes, we showed up at an encampment at 8th Avenue and Logan Street where, for the first time, we were able to say, “we have a place for you to go.” And we’re really happy that 88 people actually came indoors from that encampment. Most people went to a hotel, which we’re not disclosing the location of for people’s privacy. And a handful went to one of CVC’s [existing] micro-communities.
What are the main factors in determining the locations of future micro-communities the mayor is hoping to build?
We looked at access to public transportation, as well as some of the general neighborhood qualities, like proximity to grocery stores and other amenities. One of the things we were cognizant of is trying not to be too close to any schools and trying not to have too much impact on single-family residences. We also wanted to be sure not to concentrate poverty in particular neighborhoods in the city, and so we were really looking for geographic distribution across Denver, aiming to find a site in every City Council district. And while we haven’t quite yet achieved a site in every City Council district, one of the things we are proud of is that 10 of the 11 sites that we announced in August are actually in neighborhoods where the median income is higher than the median income in Denver overall. So, these aren’t necessarily just low-income neighborhoods, but neighborhoods where people are by and large better off than Denver as a whole.
In addition to having small homes for residents and communal bathrooms, what will the new sites offer?
These sites are intended to be all-inclusive, meaning every service that people need is actually delivered to the site. So, in addition to having 24-hour staff, they also have wraparound mental health and physical health services, job training, and addiction services for people coming from unsheltered homelessness.
Despite the city’s optimism around this plan, there’s been skepticism—or outright opposition—from neighbors in some of the chosen neighborhoods. What do you say to skeptical homeowners and renters in neighborhoods where micro-communities might be built?
I think the biggest thing is that there are around 8,000 emergency calls to encampments every year. But when we look at emergency calls to a micro-community, we have somewhere between three and 12 calls per year. So we’re talking about sites that are significantly safer because they are fully managed.
I think when we start talking about micro-communities in a neighborhood, everybody wants to always know: “Why did you choose this site?” That’s kind of a version of the question, “Why us?” The other thing they want to know is, “How are you going to keep us safe?” Earlier, I explained how we chose the sites around town. We’re going to keep people safe through great management of the sites. We’re in the contracting process for site operators and service providers—we actually have had more than 15 different nonprofits respond to be a part of this. We’re really excited about the outpouring of support from the nonprofit community. And we’re really excited about bringing forward safe sites that will serve our neighbors coming from unsheltered homelessness, who can also be good neighbors in the community.
Dealing with pushback from housed Denverites is something I know that you’re familiar with, since you encountered it with tiny home villages when you were at the Colorado Village Collaborative. Is the recent skepticism you’ve encountered more of the same?
Every time I’ve ever been a part of introducing any micro-community site—which when I was in CVC, we introduced more than a dozen potential sites—it always came with a great deal of upheaval and a great deal of concern. And each and every time, as the site moved in, those concerns were lessened as people got to know the community and see the way it was managed. And we expect that the same kind of results will be true here as well.
Are there common concerns or misconceptions that you’ve heard while proposing micro-communities to neighborhoods over the years—or even in this recent round of community meetings concerning the new 11 proposed sites? In coverage by other media outlets, I’ve seen neighbor remarks like, “What is this going to do to my home value?,” as well as comments like, “Are there going to be people shooting up right in front of my house?”
The problem with unsheltered homelessness is that people don’t have a space to be—they don’t have private space to live their lives in. That’s the problem we’re trying to solve. We see a number of different ideas about who unhoused people are and what their lives look like. The reality is that people who are unhoused want to be a part of this community. Many of them are working, or want to be working, and what we need to do is provide a safe, stable environment where that can take place. In terms of the home values piece, I’ve helped stand up micro-communities over the years in neighborhoods from Five Points to Globeville to South Park Hill, and in any of those cases, we have not seen reduction in home values, and homes continue to sell all around those sites. Denver homeowners will continue to do really well in proximity to micro-communities.
In this push to get 1,000 people housed by the end of the year, the city has said it will consider someone “housed” if they’ve been sheltered for at least two weeks. What do you say to critics who say that two weeks is not a meaningful amount of time?
Our intention is to get people into permanent housing. That is what we want. We see micro-communities and hotels as low-cost and quick ways to get people indoors and on the pathway to permanent housing. One of the services that we’re delivering in the hotels is rapid rehousing dollars, and once someone is there, we have housing resources aligned to help transition people into permanent housing. When we talk about the 1,000-person goal, we had to have a scorecard. And so we had to determine: At what point does this count as a tick mark? We decided that we didn’t want to count [a person housed] if they go into a shelter for one night. We had to pick a number, and we picked two weeks. But our goal is to better support people who are on the streets. This isn’t about 14 days; it’s about permanent housing and getting people on that path.
Given the mayor’s sweeping campaign promise to end unsheltered homelessness during his first term, there’s a lot of pressure on Johnston to deliver. At the same time, the last official count of unhoused Denverites showed numbers ticking up. As his adviser, are you feeling optimistic about putting a dent in this while homelessness appears to still be on the rise?
What we saw, over the past four years, is nearly a tripling of unsheltered homeless. So 1,400 people sleeping outside every night is, in some ways, overwhelming, but I actually see it as a manageable problem. I think we proved that in a week of intense activation at 8th and Logan, already resulting in 88 placements. That’s where we’re going to be focused through the end of the year: trying to get people indoors into safer locations. Then we’ll keep building to help those folks get placed into permanent housing. We’re also looking upstream to try to prevent inflow. But the reality is, we’re doing this in a nation where the economic conditions are worsening and the housing crisis is a real challenge, so we certainly have our work cut out for us.