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Progress report on new Department of Housing and Homelessness

For the first since it was created, this new department publicly talked about its progress to streamline programs and services in Denver.
Credit: Anusha Roy
For the first time since the new Denver Housing and Homelessness Department was created, a city council committee was briefed on its progress.

The city of Denver's new Department of Housing and Homelessness on Wednesday met with a committee of city council members to talk about how they are streamlining the city's work to help people experiencing homelessness.

The department is combining different programs and services under one umbrella, like Denver's Road Home that helps with housing solutions.

"Today was for a regular update," said Britta Fisher, who is leading the department, "A month ago Denver's Road Home started reporting to me. And we wanted to make sure city council is informed in how far we've progressed in our direction in becoming a new Department for Housing and Homelessness."

While the department is still working on finalizing a formal structure and budget, Fisher said work is underway.

"Things already announced this year that are coming out right now," Fisher said, "Include shelter improvement, day shelters expansion, (and) bridge housing.”

In a release from April when the department was first announced, Mayor Michael Hancock's office wrote:

"The new proposed Department of Housing and Homelessness will bring together the work currently being done by Denver Economic Development & Opportunity's Housing Division and Denver's Road Home, the city's lead program to support people experiencing homelessness. By bringing these two agencies together under one roof, the proposed department will connect the full housing spectrum – from housing for those experiencing homelessness to affordable homeownership and everything in between – while aligning and leveraging the city's resources in these areas."

One day before the new department was announced in April, the city auditor released a report that the city could do better when it comes to addressing this issue

On the auditor's website, Timothy M. O'Brien found: "A lack of a cohesive overall strategy along with unclear authority and understaffing hinders the city's ability to comprehensively address homelessness or measure the effectiveness of its efforts."

Fisher said talks to form the department started in 2017, long before the latest auditor’s report, but also said it’s important to address those concerns.

"As we come together we do have want to be responsive to some of the auditor's report," Fisher said, "Not only for Denver's Road Home but for the housing division.  And make sure we have the leadership strategy and resources needed to address the concerns in our community."

The city presented a set of numbers from the Denver County Point in Time report that shows between 2016 and 2018 there was a 35.6% increase in unsheltered homelessness and a 10.9% decrease in shelter/transitional housing.

Chris Conner, the director of Denver's Road Home, said that was partially balanced out by that the fact that his organization helped more people find permanent housing and solutions to leave homelessness.

"I think the question if we will come together is pretty resolute," said Conner after the briefing.

Wednesday there was a lot of discussion over housing. Online, the Mayor’s office laid out funding plans to address just that.

"As part of the new initiative, $5 million will go to support 400 Bridge Housing Vouchers over the next two years to help our hardest to shelter residents exit the streets. $10.7 million will be focused on expanding options for additional day shelter activation in partnership with our large and small providers to bring people indoors during the daytime and help them exit the streets through increased case management and supportive services. The city is committing $11.2 million to this effort, and will be working with other partners to secure the remaining $4.5 million – with the Anschutz Foundation contributing the first partner commitment of $1 million."

While city council members applaud the work that was being done, like council member Paul Kashmann. "I've been more encouraged than I have been in a long time,” he said.

The council members also asked about continuing gaps in resources.

"We have an enormous amount of resources coming down the pipeline," said councilwoman Robin Kniech," We aren't going to have groundbreakings tomorrow and ribbon cuttings next year."

There's a gap Conner acknowledged.

"There is this gap that we need to deal with over the next several years," Conner said, "In being able to identify people appropriate for the forthcoming housing opportunities today because they are out there today and (to) be able to serve them within that gap."

When asked, Fisher said they are working on a strategic plan that would help answer how some of these gaps will be filled and who would be in charge of finding new sites and land for future housing.

According to the auditor's office, the city's programs focused on homelessness have been audited twice under the current administration but said that's not unusual since it's a bigger and high profile agency.

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