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Denver Mayor Mike Johnston shifts city's approach to migrants

Johnston says his administration is working to find new approaches as migrants continue to arrive in Denver, like funding local nonprofits to help.

DENVER, Colorado — More than 15,000 migrants have arrived in Denver since December 2023, and roughly 700 are being sheltered in facilities that have partnered with the city to provide shelters. 

Throughout the summer, about 30 migrants have been arriving per day. Lately, that number has been going up slightly. Eighty-two arrived on Wednesday. 

Denver Mayor Mike Johnston is 30 days into his new position and agreed to speak with 9NEWS one-on-one about the issue. 

Q: You've been in office for about 30 days. What have you done so far regarding migrants? 

Johnston: We have a couple of key steps we've taken on migrants. One is we've created a new structure for how we're going to approach services to migrants. As you may remember, there was a proposal for a large contract, GuardaWorld, that the city council decided not to go forward with. We're instead planning to issue a new RFP that will be focused much more on small, local, community-based nonprofits that can provide services. Rather than having one comprehensive contract that need a very large provider to serve, we'll have a bunch of individualized smaller contracts that local organizations can engage in. I think that's a much better way for us to provide services and to be able to leverage the resources we already have in our communities to help serve newcomers.

Q: How do you see smaller nonprofits fulfilling that better than a larger vendor like that? 

Johnston: I think that means they are allowed to work in the area of their expertise and their experience. So, if you just do food service, great, then we can have a small part of the nonprofit that's just food service. If you just want to do housing navigation, we can have a small part of the contract that does. If you just want to do general staffing or you want to do facilities maintenance, there's a way to subdivide each of the needs so that any small business might be able to say, 'Oh, I can take on one part of this without having to take on all of it.' I think that's gonna make it much more accessible, and we think much more helpful, to local providers. 

Q: Do you have any idea how quickly that they would receive that funding? Because I've spoken to a lot of the many nonprofits that work with migrants, and they say that they're totally out of funding and up- to-date, haven't received any money from the city. 

Johnston: We've had a real problem with some of the federal reimbursement on these dollars. We have spent about $23 million in total on the migrant crisis since December. $13 million of that has now been reimbursed by the federal government, so only about $10 million of direct city resources.

One of the things we want to do is to be able to be a better partner, to be able to pay non-profit partners more quickly. Right now, it's been hard to wait on reimbursement from the federal government. So, what we have to do often is go ahead and pay the bill proactively, even before we get reimbursement dollars. But we know if you're a small nonprofit, you can't cash flow two or three months while you're waiting for your bills to get paid. So, we'll work on both making this RFP more accessible and making sure we get payment out to people more directly. We're working with the state to make sure they'll extend some of the navigation support they've been providing. We're optimistic that with their support plus ongoing federal support, we'll be able to get local partners paid.

FULL INTERVIEW: Denver mayor says he wants local groups handling city's migrant response

Q: Obviously, you've taken an approach to homelessness, and that's one of your main priorities. Do you have any idea how many migrants are living on the streets in Denver right now? 

Johnston: We know we've had about 15,000 migrants who we've served entirely since the crisis began in December. We paid for about 6,000 of those folks to have onward bus tickets to places that were their final destinations. We have about 700 that are right now still in our shelters around the city. So, we do know many have transitioned out and have either found access to housing or opportunities.

We're watching very closely to see how that influences the total homeless population. We haven't seen huge numbers of folks that have ended up in encampments or right now expanding that population of people that are unhoused, but we are watching that closely. We think they're pretty different populations with different needs. 

Most of our migrants that arrive are newcomers who are looking very aggressively for work and tend to be young and able-bodied and ready to get to work. They have a different set of needs, and some of our folks who might be in longer term challenges with mental health or addiction needs that we see among our unhoused population, or people that have been chronically homeless for a long period of time. 

Q: What are you doing differently when you do [encounter migrants] living in tents or encampments because we know them to exist? 

Johnston: We are just doing day-by-day outreach right now to each of the encampments to get people onto by-name lists where we can identify their needs and connect them to housing. I'm not aware directly of the initial encampments...that have found large populations of migrants. I do believe you're right that we know they are out in places trying to find access to housing.

For me, what this underscores is one of the big areas of focus we have. I met with Secretary Mayorkas and have been talking with the federal government about two needs that we have. One is reimbursement for services, but the second is really temporary protective status so people can get access to work. I speak Spanish, so I went down to visit the migrants at the Intake Center before. And almost all of them, to a person, the first thing they'll say is, 'I just need a job.' Like, 'I don't I don't need support or charity, can you help me find a job?' So, we know we have people here who want to work.  I get calls from CEOs who say, 'I heard more migrants arrived, can I hire them.' So, we have employers who want to hire them. What we have right now is a federal government that doesn't allow those people to go to work for those employers who want to hire them. We want to try to help them get access to work authorization while they're waiting for what could be a two-year case on an asylum approval. If they're going to be here in the meantime, we want to make sure they can work in the meantime. So, we're gonna keep pushing for that opportunity, because we know these people are ready and able and excited to get to work if we can help get them access to jobs.

Q: Obviously, it's a federal issue, right? When it comes to work permits, do you see Denver being in a position where you guys can create a local work permitting program? 

Johnston: We're going to put everything on the table. So, we're going to try creatively to see what we can do with the federal government, what we can do with the state government. I think Governor Polis has the same desire to help people get access to work. We're going to be creative, and we'll be tenacious about trying to figure out the best path forward. Absent that, we have a challenge where you have folks that are here, where they're waiting up to two years for an asylum ruling. In that time, they're not allowed to work, but they're expected to find housing and support themselves. The options are either the federal government has to support them, or they're left trying to find access to work without authorization. Neither of those, I think, are fair or good long-term options. So, we think the best option is, if we believe someone is eligible to and is waiting on an asylum case, let's let them work while they're waiting. 

Q: During the debates, you said that one of the things that you would implement would be communicating with border cities like El Paso. Have you done that? And if so, what have they told you?

Johnston: We've just started that outreach. There has been some communication previous to my arrival, and I've gotten updated and briefed on that. We are going to expand that in the weeks to come with exactly this lesson. What we know is about 70% of the migrants who arrive in Denver are not trying to get to Denver. They're trying to get to an ongoing destination because they have family in Chicago or Boston or Detroit or LA. They either got placed on or accidentally dropped into a bus to Denver, and we spend three, five, seven days housing them, supporting them, and still trying to help them get on to a future destination. It's much more efficient for us to contact them in El Paso and say, before you get on a bus to Denver, if your goal is really to go to Chicago, let's get you on a bus to Chicago. Because that's both better for them and much more efficient and affordable for us. So, we will continue to work with those cities that are sending folks to us to make sure we're helping them get to their long-term destination, and not just to Denver as a waystation.

Q: Do you like the sheltering system as it is right now? Do you think the time allowed for migrants in a shelter should be extended? Shortened? Do you see yourself adding shelters? Taking More away?

Johnston: That's one of the things we're going to be tracking closely is: Do we believe that 30-day timeline is the right one? Is it too short? Is it too long? Is it just right? We do want to help people get access to services long-term, and we know that we can't house people forever. We have lots of folks in the city who have challenges with housing access - both people that are unhoused, both teachers and nurses and firefighters every day who are finding it hard to pay the bills here. 

So, we have a whole set of committee members who are struggling with that same need around housing. But we do want to make sure that we're thoughtful, and we don't want to be increasing our population of people that are unhoused, nor do we want to be putting people at risk. So, we'll continue to monitor that right now. We've had pretty good success at transitioning people on that timeline, but we'll always keep an eye on and open to changing practice.  

Q: When it comes to migrants who phase out of those shelters - time has expired. They have no money. They've gotten very little work or no work at all since they've been here. What option do you think the city should offer, if any, to them in that in-between, because right now they are just living on their own in cars, tents, encampments?

Johnston: What we're working on doing is helping partner with community providers to get them access to housing. As you mentioned, to see if we can pay a first month's rent, get you into a unit to get you stabilized. All the wraparound services will be navigators to help them identify their places where they can find housing or services or opportunities that are available.

But we are stuck in a scenario. We want to do the humanitarian thing and support people and getting access to services. We also know, in the absence of the ability to work, it will be hard for us to support them permanently on those services. We're doing everything we can to transition people, but the reality is people are gonna have to look for work on their own, without state support or federal government approval, if we want them to support themselves. So, our choices are either help them find a way to support themselves or have the state or the city commit to supporting them permanently on our own. We don't have the city budget to do that permanently. So, we would even need the federal government to say, 'We won't let these people work, but we will provide funding to support them in the two years that they're waiting, or we will let them work'. But I don't think there's a viable solution to say you can't work, and we don't have the money for you to support them while they don't work. I don't think that's a reasonable solution, and that's where we're stuck right now, which is why we're trying to both connect them as many services as possible and create a path and be able to get to work while they get their asylum case resolved.

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