Fewer people will sleep on the streets of Denver tonight than when Mayor Mike Johnston was inaugurated in July. According to the city’s House1000 progress dashboard, nearly 1,150 people have moved indoors since Johnston declared homelessness a state of emergency on his first day in office. The largest encampments of people experiencing chronic homelessness—like the one at 21st and Curtis streets—have been closed. And the first of several planned micro-communities offering temporary shelter opened on New Year’s Eve at 12033 E. 38th Avenue, just in time for the city to meet its goal of moving 1,000 people off the streets in 2023.

“I think a year ago, people had given in to thinking this problem wasn’t solvable,” Johnston told 5280. “This was just going to be the new way of life in Denver. You were just going to have massive encampments in Denver all the time. What’s changed, fundamentally, is a theory of how this problem is actually solvable.”

Providing shelter to more people in Denver has been the result of an enormous effort by the city and supporting organizations, but the problem of homelessness—as a walk around the city makes clear—persists in many neighborhoods.

How Many People Are Still Experiencing Homelessness?

It’s hard to know precisely how many people are living on the streets of Denver. According to a point-in-time survey taken in January 2023 by the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative (MDHI), 1,423 people self-reported that they were unsheltered in Denver County, with 5,818 reporting barriers to housing, a number that includes the population living in temporary housing. When the Johnston administration rolled out House1000 last July, it did so under the assumption that between 1,500 and 2,000 people were sleeping on the streets of Denver on any given night—and it set a goal to create 2,000 units of shelter.

But as the larger number indicates, several thousand more are at risk of losing shelter due to a lack of affordable housing, and Johnston knows the city must work quickly. “The 2023 data is worrisome,” he says. “There is an increase in people entering homelessness. We have to do this with such throttled volume because if you only have 10 or 20 people moving out of homelessness in a month, there’s more than that moving into it each month.”

Aside from point-in-time surveys, quantifying the number of people moving into homelessness is difficult, as the city only knows someone is on the streets if they’ve contacted a service provider, like one of the city shelters. However, according to MDHI’s data, there were 4,794 people experiencing homelessness (including those at shelters) in Denver County in 2022, compared to 5,818 in 2023—a 21 percent increase. These numbers don’t include Venezuelan migrants, who have flooded the city by the thousands.

Getting people inside is the first step, but the ultimate goal must be to create long-term housing options, says Cathy Alderman, chief communications and public policy officer for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. “I’m so encouraged and proud of the city for accomplishing what it did. People’s lives will be saved by being indoors,” she says. “But it cannot be the end. People need access to long-term housing; if not, we’ve just put a Band-Aid on the problem.”

To combat the influx of new people experiencing homelessness, the City of Denver committed almost $30 million toward rental assistance in 2024, a figure nearly twice as high as what was previously budgeted by the mayor’s office. Still, Alderman notes that creating long-term affordable housing is a massive problem in Denver—one that won’t be solved in a year—and one that must be overcome to break the cycle of homelessness.

Tiny Homes and Hotels Are Part of the Solution

According to the city’s dashboard, 98 percent of people who moved off the streets since July are still indoors, though only 23 percent—or around 260 people—have found permanent housing. The interim solution has primarily been hotels the city purchased, like the 200-room Embassy Suites on Hampden Avenue, as well as tiny-home micro-communities opening across the city.

The first such community, located at 38th and Peoria streets, welcomed 58 residents when it opened on the last day of 2023. The cluster of pallet homes in the parking lot of a former Stay Inn, now owned by the city, is surrounded by a six-foot-tall privacy fence. Each unit features a desk, a bed, and heating and air conditioning, with shared bathrooms and 24-hour security on-site. Residents are not expected to stay there indefinitely; instead, city officials anticipate people will spend three to six months at these sites where they can work with on-site case managers to secure an ID and access services including mental health care, addiction support, and job training.

Two more micro-communities will be opening in the coming months—one two blocks from City Hall at 1375 N. Elati Street and another at 2301 S. Santa Fe Drive, about a half-mile south of Ruby Hill Park. As new micro-communities come online, a street medicine team from the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless will bring a mobile health clinic to each site and serve as the primary health care provider for these communities.

Where the Work Remains to Be Done

At 22nd Street and Park Avenue, just two blocks from the now-closed encampment in Five Points, several people experiencing homelessness are congregated on a recent Friday morning. Down the street, two tents are erected on the sidewalk. On a walking path underneath I-25 near Inca Street in Sunnyside, one person is sleeping on concrete.

Homeless encampment on Logan Street between 17th Avenue and 18th Avenue in August 23, 2023. Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post

At 37th Avenue and Parish Street, a block from the first micro-community, a woman in her 20s who identifies as B explains she’s been experiencing homelessness in Denver for six years. “I’ve been moving block to block,” she says. “I’m just always trying to adapt.” She’s been living in a pop-up camper and says her long-term goal is to find a home, but today she just wants a warm place to sleep. She says she’s had issues with shelters in the past and tried to gain access to the micro-community after it opened, but it was already at capacity. She’s hopeful she’ll be able to find a room at one of the city-owned hotel shelters.

The city knows people like B are still out there, though identifying isolated incidents of homelessness is difficult compared to the large encampments where hundreds of people could be helped at once. “It will be slower trickles,” Johnston says about moving people indoors this year. “It will be two or three people at a time. It might be two or three people under a bridge or someone living on the High Line Canal by himself.”

The Challenges Ahead

The city’s task now is manyfold. By using mechanisms like rental assistance and developing more affordable housing, it must prevent people from losing shelter in the first place. And on the other end of the issue, the city will have to move people from transitional shelters into stable long-term units, which will ultimately require the city to produce more affordable housing.

At the same time, Denver is managing an influx of Venezuelan migrants, most of whom have been bused to the city from the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas starting in December 2022. Of these more than 35,000 migrants, 4,500 are living in city shelters. While the city has kept its response to homelessness and migrant arrival largely separate, service providers in the city are feeling the strain of dual crises.

Despite all this, Johnston notes that the city’s priorities are clear: “We need to make the experience of being homeless on the street as short, rare, and safe as possible,” he says. “We need to get people quickly into transitional housing and then into permanent housing.”

Jay Bouchard
Jay Bouchard
Jay Bouchard is a Denver-based writer and a former editor on 5280's digital team.