Denver Mayor Mike Johnston has enjoyed the plethora of activities he has been fulfilling during his first three months in office. He has been hiring staff members to fill cabinet positions, hosting town halls to connect with Denver residents, determining the priorities of his first budget, and implementing the details of his homelessness initiative. “I love that we’re moving at break-neck speed on the city’s toughest problems,” says Johnston. “We go from working on community economic development in Northeast Denver, to public safety in Southwest Denver, to the revitalization of downtown, to finding a new home for the Broncos stadium.”
On Oct. 25, as Mayor Johnston reached the pivotal 100-day milestone, he spoke to Front Porch about the plans he implemented, the challenges he faced, the goals he achieved, and the issues he will prioritize next year.
The Homelessness Initiative
After his July 17th inauguration, Johnston immediately established the homelessness issue as a top priority and focused on the House1000 initiative as a primary goal. “We knew that homelessness was the biggest crisis the city was facing,” says Johnston. “It’s certainly a humanitarian crisis for the folks that are living on the streets and who are at risk of being taken advantage of or dying every day. And we know the encampments that exist around the city are placing a real burden on businesses that are struggling and on neighbors that don’t feel safe.”
The Neighborhood Engagement Effort
On July 31, Mayor Johnston kicked off the Neighborhood Engagement Effort by hosting town hall forums in every district to explain the details of his plan and to receive feedback from the residents.
“We learned a lot from the 40 town halls we’ve had,” says Johnston. “A lot of people believe this is a crisis, are glad we’re focusing on it, and appreciated us coming out and talking about the issue because there’s never been this kind of community outreach effort from the Mayor’s office. Yes, some people had fair questions or reasonable concerns, and a lot of people gave us suggestions for other sites. But at every meeting at least one person would raise their hand and ask about how they can help, and that’s been very inspiring.”
Providing services for the micro-communities is a crucial feature of the homelessness initiative. On-site services for showers, laundry, and kitchens offer individuals comfortable living conditions, and wraparound services for mental health, substance abuse, and job placement are designed to help individuals eventually obtain meaningful employment and permanent housing.
“Offering wraparound services is a key part of the plan that people sometimes miss,” says Johnston. “Yes, the initiative is about getting people off the streets and into housing, but it’s really about providing the ground services that can help them succeed on those sites. We know once you get into a place where you are safe, stable and secure, then you’re far more likely to accept the services than you would be when you’re living in tents every night. We’ve already seen that people taking those services goes up dramatically so we’re really excited about that.”
Preliminary List of Micro-Community Sites
Identifying sites for the micro-communities was an especially difficult challenge for the Johnston administration. Several criteria needed to be met, including access to utilities, proximity to transit, requirements for zoning, distance from schools, and distribution throughout every district. Certain flaws hindered the efforts to establish ideal locations, but on Aug. 24 Mayor Johnston announced a preliminary list with the first 11 sites.
“The critical challenges were often components of site preparation,” explains Johnston. “It might be that we couldn’t get a deal with their private landowners or the amount of remediation to do a site was too much. You had to dig up, you had to flatten, you had to level, you had to remove, and it would start to get too expensive. So we instead looked for places where we had great opportunity, great connections, and sites that were much closer to being ready than some of those others.”
Moving the Encampment at 8th and Logan
Moving the unhoused individuals from a large encampment at 8th and Logan to a former hotel in the Central Park neighborhood was a significant achievement for the Johnston administration and a new development for the entire city. This marked the first time officials conducted an encampment sweep while bringing the individuals to an indoor shelter.
“That was definitely one of the proudest days of the administration,” says Mayor Johnston. “That day fundamentally proved that our strategy works because two things happened. One is that 100 percent of the unhoused people that we contacted all said ‘yes’ to our housing. 100 percent! That thwarts the belief that people wouldn’t take housing or wouldn’t go there. And the reason our strategy worked is because these were actual hotel rooms, tiny homes, and leased apartments where you’ve got an individual protected space, you’ve got lock and key, you’ve got your own address, you’ve got a place to store your stuff, and you’ve got a bathroom, shower, and kitchen. Then you have what it takes to have all those wraparound services. Our belief was always that if we provided those features, people would come, and that worked out overwhelmingly well.”
While this demonstrated that unhoused individuals could embrace moving to indoor shelters and benefit from utilizing on-site services, Mayor Johnston was also encouraged by another positive development from the 8th and Logan move.
“The second goal of the initiative is to keep neighborhoods closed to camping. Since we moved it, there have not been any people camping there. It’s open to the neighborhoods, businesses are thriving, and people are walking out of restaurants. So it also showed us the second part of the model really works because getting people into housing can also help keep those neighborhoods free from future camping.”
Breaking Ground on Micro-Communities
On the week of Oct. 9, the city broke ground on the first new micro-community site on Santa Fe Drive. Since then, construction on three other sites has also begun and the micro-communities are expected to be open by the end of the year.
“We’re figuring out how to get every utility line done, the water put in, and the fences put up,” says Mayor Johnston. “People forget that when you’re getting 50 tiny homes on a site, it’s almost like 50 different homes because each one needs an electric line, its own grounding, and its own structure. So our team is working around the clock on that.”
Mayor Johnston is still striving to reach the ambitious goal of providing shelter for 1,000 unhoused individuals by the end of the year.
“We’re pushing really hard and we’re still optimistic that we can find a way to get there,” says Johnston. “People on the streets of the city deserve it, people trying to run their businesses deserve it, and people who want their public spaces back deserve it. That’s why we’re not afraid to set ambitious goals. Could we fail? Of course we can, but we owe it to the city to deliver on a solution that’s big enough to make a dramatic impact on the need that’s there.
Getting to Know City Employees
Trying to meet city employees to better understand how the city operates has also consumed much of Mayor Johnston’s first 100 days. “There’s 13,000 city employees that I’m trying to get to meet,” says Johnston. “I’m working with departments, getting updates every day, and starting to do ride-alongs where I’ll spend a couple hours with the city employee in their job every day to figure out what they’re seeing, what’s working, and what’s not working.”
Policy Priorities for the New Year
Mayor Johnston also spoke about the issues he plans to prioritize for the city and the policies he intends to implement next year while he continues his plan to end homelessness on the streets.
“We will tackle every issue with the same degree of ambition, so that’s just the pace the city’s going to move all the time now,” says Johnston. “But in 2024 we are really focusing on public safety all across the city, affordable housing at all incomes across the city, and economic revitalization by helping to make sure that businesses and small entrepreneurs can grow here, move here, and stay here. So those are going to be our big four efforts in 2024, and we will go after them with all of the same tenacity, grit, and heart that we are on this first one.”
Front Porch photos by Christie Gosch