Housing, Not Harassment: Denver Demonstrates How to Handle Homeless Camps

The homeless population consistently faces harassment by municipal governments across the country. Often, communities of homeless individuals have to endure being routinely broken apart by police patrols, typically prior to an event known to bring in tourists from out of town. These raids on transient encampments can displace individuals experiencing homelessness, sometimes with no notice, and no options to receive services.

  • In the lead-up to this year’s Kentucky Derby, for example, the City of Louisville raided more than a dozen homeless encampments near Interstate 65. Advocates told local media at the time that the city’s homeless shelters were full and those evicted from encampments had no place to go.
  • In early 2022, police in Los Angeles, California cleared out a homeless encampment under the 405 freeway near SoFi Stadium prior to the Super Bowl. Residents there said the raid was conducted without warning, and that police offered no help for those evicted.
  • In July of 2021, when Denver was due to host the MLB All-Star Game, the Denver Post found that former Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration conducted 51 sweeps in the six months before the game, which was more sweeps than City Hall conducted throughout all of 2020 combined. City officials maintained the sweeps were unrelated to preparations for the game.

A 2018 study (PDF link) from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development found that homeless individuals will often prefer to live in camps instead of shelters, not only because of shortcomings at shelters, but as a means of forming community with one another, and to have privacy and autonomy. But aside from improving shelters, cities can take alternative approaches to sweeps: Temporarily placing the homeless in unused hotel rooms.

As the newly minted Mayor of Denver, Mike Johnston made a promise to house at least 1,000 individuals experiencing homelessness by the end of 2023. And for the first time under his administration, several dozen people at a homeless encampment subjected to a sweep in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood were recently contacted about staying temporarily in a hotel room for six to twelve months before moving into permanent housing. According to Axios, homeless individuals were approached by city-led outreach teams that offered substance abuse and behavioral health counseling, and access to other medical services, prior to the latest sweep.

While the lack of affordable housing options is a persistent problem for Denver residents — and remains the largest contributor to rising homelessness — the city making efforts to house homeless individuals is a step in the right direction, as research shows that conditions often faced by the homeless, like substance abuse and mental health problems, can be solved by providing housing first.

So-called “Housing First” efforts to stop homelessness are proven to be the most effective long-term solutions for both homelessness reduction and at cost efficiency for municipal governments. According to a February 2023 fact sheet (PDF link) from the National Low-Income Housing Coalition and the National Alliance to End Homelessness, every $10 invested in Housing First solutions amounted to $21.72 in cost savings. The costs of homelessness become apparent when accounting for the cost of operating homeless shelters, conducting police enforcement of the homeless community, and the healthcare-related costs incurred by taxpayers when homeless individuals visit emergency rooms.

What do you think of the city’s new approach to homeless encampments? Let us know in the comments below!

(Featured image: Wikimedia Commons)

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