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Letter Sent to Mayor Johnston: Six Criteria for Houseless State of Emergency Housing

August 30, 2023

Re: Houseless State of Emergency

Dear Mayor Johnston,

We are glad for your goal to house 1000 houseless Denverites by the end of the year, and appreciate your serious focus on this issue, as evidenced when you declared houselessness in Denver to be a State of Emergency in the early days of your administration. We couldn’t agree more with your assessment of the urgency of the crisis.

That said, we are writing to express our concern with the initial plans under this State of Emergency that focus largely on non-congregate sheltering. That’s not housing. It is critical that you use this opportunity to create substantial, attainable low-to-no income housing that prioritizes those most in need, and not squander more money and political capital on continued efforts to shuffle the most visible houseless people out of sight. This band-aid approach has characterized so much of the historical approach to houselessness in our city. It will not have the meaningful, lasting impact you desire to achieve.

Six Criteria of Successful Housing for State of Emergency

Action that delivers real, lasting housing and prioritizes the most vulnerable residents is what Denver desperately needs. People should not be forced to live in managed programs with “quick fix” boxes. What follows are the six criteria of a response to the crisis that would put our city firmly on the right track to addressing the crisis of houselessness.

1. Prioritize the Most Vulnerable, Not Most Visible.  The 1000 units of housing created under the State of Emergency should be given first to the most vulnerable people, not the most visible. Giving people housing just because they happen to be at a visible downtown encampment is an ineffective and ludicrous way to select people for housing opportunities. People who are elderly, sick, disabled, and families with children must be prioritized. Our houseless neighbors agree: in conducting our 2023 survey of 828 houseless people in Denver (‘Pipe Dreams and Picket Fences’, pg. 54) we learned that, irrespective of whether or not they personally fell into those demographics, an overwhelming majority (77%) of houseless people themselves believe that families, disabled people, and seniors should get priority access to housing opportunities.

In addition, an equitable and impactful prioritization scheme should consider the intersectional oppression of marginalized communities. Black and Brown people, migrants, transgender and queer people, victims of violence — these are the factors that must be taken under serious consideration when prioritizing people to receive housing – not simply offering housing to the people who housed neighbors would prefer to have out of sight.

2. Create Genuinely New Housing Opportunities. The 1000 units of housing created under the State of Emergency should be genuinely new low/no income housing opportunities, not housing units previously acquired or secured. The units do not need to be newly constructed, but they do need to be newly made available to low-and-no income people. For example, counting hotel acquisitions that were already in the works prior to your tenure in office, and prior to the State of Emergency declaration, undermines the purpose and the spirit of your goal. New master leases or securing new vouchers for poor people in pre-existing units currently priced for the rich would be rightly counted as new housing opportunities.

3. Create Long-Term, Not Temporary, Housing.  In order to truly be effective at achieving a sustained reduction in houselessness, the 1000 units of low-to-no income housing created under the State of Emergency must be long-term. Housing secured temporarily through rapid rehousing or transitional housing should not count, as these stop gap measures will not last. Housing insecurity is traumatizing and, as we witnessed when the temporary housing set up during COVID came to an end, only serves to demoralize people and make them distrust the system further. Let’s stop pushing the need down the road. Temporary housing offers the appearance of progress in lieu of actual progress.

4. Housing with Amenities, Not Simply Four Walls.  The 1000 units of housing created under the State of Emergency must include the amenities needed to allow people to remain comfortably housed. Being “housed” is not just about having four walls and a roof. In order to live healthy lives, people need running water, a bathroom, and a kitchen in which to cook for themselves. In ‘Pipe Dreams and Picket Fences’ the responses we received in surveying 828 houseless people in Denver tells us that amenities are the third highest desire named after housing (pg. 24). Desire for proper hygiene was repeatedly mentioned, as was the need for the independence of one’s own kitchen.

5. Housing with Rights, not “Non-Congregate Shelter”.  The 1000 units of housing created under the State of Emergency should include the same standard legal protections offered to any other tenant. It cannot be “non-congregate shelters” that rob residents of their rights and are run as programs as opposed to independent housing. The type of housing opened up through State of Emergency funding should be housing any city official would be content to move into. In ‘Pipe Dreams and Picket Fences’ the responses we received in surveying 828 houseless people in Denver tell us that autonomy and community are the top concerns amidst a desire for housing (pg. 24). Rules that restrict guests are repeatedly named as a top issue for housing, and the ability to have guests or housemates was the second highest “support service” requested (pg. 97). Other rules and restrictions, such as curfew or room checks, are a reason hundreds of respondents stated they could not move into certain housing. Houseless people are clear as day throughout this survey that they want housing with the same rights and freedoms as any housing built for people with more money.

6. Housing with Transition Supports, not “In-and-Done”. The 1000 households who receive housing under the State of Emergency should have a support team to help with transition needs, including but not limited to: help with paperwork; utilities assistance; acquiring furnishing, dishes, and cleaning supplies; neighborhood navigation; personal emotional support; and more. In ‘Pipe Dreams and Picket Fences’ the responses we received in surveying 828 houseless people in Denver, together with our experience in assisting hundreds of people with moving into housing, tells us transition support is a high priority. 200 respondents specifically named the need for help with paperwork/bureaucracy after getting into housing. Financial support was by far the highest support service named, at 500 people, which points to the need for assistance with housing needs such as furniture, dishes, utilities, etc. (p 97).

Let’s do this right the first time. If you are truly committed to ending houselessness in Denver during your tenure, these first steps are crucial. And if Denver’s response to the Houseless State of Emergency is going to house 1000 houseless people — and allow them to stay housed – then these six criteria for who is prioritized to receive housing, what kind of housing is created, and how people are supported in their housing must be heeded. If we don’t create real housing that people want to live in where they’re supported to be successful in remaining there for the long term, then this whole State of Emergency will just have to be re-done again the next year as people will be back on the streets or in micro units where they continue to need real housing.

We want a State of Emergency successful in creating housing for people in desperate need. We also understand that the only way for you to succeed is if you listen to and respect the voices of houseless people, and give them housing they want to live in and can remain in — not just try to remove visible houseless people from the sight of people who are housed.


Housekeys Action Network Denver

Read our March 2023 report ‘Pipe Dreams and Picket Fences’ here.

Cosigned by:
American Friends Service Committee

Bring Our Neighbors Home

Buck Foundation

Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition

Colorado Poverty Law Project

Denver Catholic Worker

Denver Democratic Socialists of America

Denver Task Force to Reimagine Policing and Public Safety

Empowerment Program

Friends of SODen

Harm Reduction Action Center

Housekeys Action Network Denver

Mutual Aid Monday

National Homelessness Law Center

Reciprocity Collective

Redress Movement

Romero Theater Troupe

Seasoned with Grace Unboxed

Swing By Street Supply

The Gathering Place

Warm Cookies of the Revolution

Western Regional Advocacy Project

Women Uprising

In Addition, 103 Mental Health Workers from Well Power signed on to support this letter as individuals: 

Bauer, Kayla responder with Denver Parks and Recreation

Vaughan, Adele mental health worker

Hawley, Christina   LCSW

Favela, Suzette  Case Manager 

Pocock, Emily  Health Navigator 

 Rodriguez, Kiara  Case Manager

Jacobson, Sydney Case manager 

Travis, Beth Peer Support formally unhoused 

Wang, Lucy Mental Health Worker

Lahowetz, Marsh works in mental health 

Eligar, Celaina works in mental health 

Toffoli, Selene Peer Support 

Harting, Ivonne Peer Specialist 

Parton, Bailey  Mental Health Worker 

Ramsey, Rowan Mental Health Worker 

Werner, Jade LCSW, former case manager

Litt, Emily Case Manager

Lescroart, Matt LPC 

Perlin, Julie LCSW 

Garcia, Cassandra Case Manager and Prevention Specialist 

Simmons, Mandy Psychologist

Guetling, Lauren  LCSW

Mitchell, Nikki  Peer Support 

Sasha Neal Housing Resource Specialist 

Diana Walbrun Mental Health Worker 

Viviana Acosta  Mental Health Worker

Jennifer Hermon Case Manager

Winicov, Natalie  Co-Responder

Monroy Pineda, Sue Mental Health Worker

Bargas, Charly residential counselor 

Berry, Jessy case manager

Lyon-Frick, Samara project coordinator

Johnson, Fannie psychiatric LPN

Felder, Jud peer specialist

Kazutomi-Crosby, Elaine Mental Health Worker 

Hudson, Patrick  Psychiatric Nurse

Benson, Essence Mental Health Worker 

Reynolds, Sheila Peer Specialist, formerly unhoused. 

Don Reynolds, Samaritan House  Employee, formally unhoused

Cyrus Brown Case Manager 

Smith, Angelina LCSW, former Case Manager

Cox, Edward  Mental Health Worker 

Parker, Alyssa Mental Health Worker, Former Housing Case Manager

Wilson, Khristine Psychiatric Nurse

Ricketts, Meredith Mental Health Worker 

Oliver, Leon Case Manager

Low, Izzy  Mental Health Worker 

Asantewaa, Anastasia Mental Health Worker 

Nwokedi, Ambrose Mental Health Worker 

Bryan Milner LCSW with Veterans Administration

Reichwein, Daniel  LCSW

Mable, Emerald Co-Responder 

McKenzie, Marilyn  Vocational Specialist

Jameson, Meredith  Nurse Practitioner

Wandel, Joseph  Mental Health Worker 

Pellissier, Eddie  Mental Health Worker 

White, Timber  Mental Health Worker 

Ortiz, Mayra Psychiatric Nurse

Martinez, Alex  Mental Health Worker 

Kay, Erin  Case Manager 

Rapp, Caroline  Mental Health Worker 

Captain, Jon Mental Health Worker 

Stefanich, Emily  Case Manager 

Bohlender, Heather  LCSW, former Case Manager 

Kelley, Maygan Case Manager 

Dickinson, Delaney  Case Manager 

MacIntyre, Kenneth  Psychiatrist 

Eisenhauer, Rachel  Mental Health Worker 

Poulton, Scott Co-Responder 

Valladares Giron, Giovana  LCSW

Lander, Miguel mental health therapist

Huberman, Avi Med Courier-Pharmacy

Bramstedt, Jennifer program manager

Elliott Burke mental health therapist

Miah Gomez residential counselor

Shevieve Gallegos vocational project coordinator

Joel Gagliano mental health therapist

Isabelle Moses LCSW

Wichmann, Jessica Mental Health worker 

Jenkins, Matthew  Mental Health Worker  

Owens, Kristin Case Manager 

Flanigan, Erin  LCSW

Landry, Danielle psychiatric medical assistant 

Neuville, Jennifer  Case Manager 

Young, Kelsey Co-Responder 

Ubriaco, Emma  Public Health 

Pierce, Kate  Co-Responder

Carney, Thomas  Mental Health Worker 

Wells, Jules Peer Specialist 

Barraza Mendez, Maria  Mental Health Worker 

Mary Kent Co-Responder

Kanicki, Bohdan  Mental Health Worker

Bowden, Russell  Mental Health Worker

Stone, Jessica  LCSW

Mercy Bessem, Ashu  Mental Health Worker

Lobung, Ite  Case Manager 

Alvarez, Liliana Mental Health Worker 

Soellner, Rachael  LCSW

Hampton, Deeann  peer specialist

Kay Sasser LPC

Jennifer Van  case manager

James Blair, Case Manager 

 Migongo, Esther  Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner 

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