Denver Mayor Mike Johnston speaks face-to-face about migrant response, housing and public safety
On the heels of a trip to the White House to meet with members of President Joe Biden’s administration, Mayor Mike Johnston spoke individually with CBS News Colorado about the ongoing migrant crisis and other key issues facing the Denver metro area.
“Over the past two weeks, I have brought together six mayors from across the country, all of whom have cities that have been significantly impacted by the arrival of immigrants,” Johnston said. “We went with a delegation of mayors to talk to the White House and Senate leadership about this issue and lay out some clear needs that we think we need to be able to address.”
Some of the needs of Johnston and other mayors were outlined in a letter written to the Biden administration this week. While he did not meet directly with the president during his trip, Johnston feels reassured that Biden’s chief of staff and other leaders have heard these requests and are willing to collaborate on solutions.
“We know we need more federal dollars so we can help provide services to support people. We also want to see them increase access to work authorization,” Johnston said. “When I talk to immigrants when they get to Denver, the first thing they ask me is where I can get a job. I don’t need any charity; I just want to work. And I have employers calling me every day. I say, ‘Can I hire these people?’ “We have open jobs.’ And so we look at it as a place where there are people who want to work and employers who want to hire them, and a federal government that stands in the way and keeps them out.”
The Biden administration is already asking Congress for $1.4 billion in federal aid for the ongoing migrant crisis, but Johnston and other leaders want that support to be closer to $5 billion.
The coalition of mayors is also calling on the government to support a faster path to asylum status and a more coordinated process for immigrants entering the United States.
“We know it’s hard to get big things done in D.C., and I will say we’re grateful that the president actually put forward a proposal for an additional funding bill that includes dollars to provide additional support to cities. This is a great start,” Johnston said. “I think they agree on the things they know we want to accomplish. I think they have shared values about wanting it to be a welcoming state and a country where you can work and support yourself. Both are true.”
But ultimately, Johnston says the key to supporting more immigrants is giving them the ability to work legally sooner.
“If we have people who can start working the day they arrive in Denver, we don’t need to shelter them for 37 days, they can move into their own unit,” Johnston said. “The more difficult it is for people to find work, the more we want to make sure we provide services so they are not abandoned on the streets because of the cold. So, we are trying to find that balance.”
Supporting immigrants in Denver
Right now, supporting incoming immigrants in metro Denver costs the city about $2 million a week.
“If we stay at this level, that means about $100 million through 2024. For comparison, that would be half of the entire budget of the city and county of Denver for affordable housing and homelessness combined,” Johnston said. “We want to make sure we’re not putting anyone in harm’s way. We also have to be attentive to all the other city services.”
Next week, the city is scheduled to temporarily stop using one of the hotels the city has designated to house migrants, located on East 58th Street off Interstate 25. While the number of migrants in the area remains very high, a spokesperson for the city’s Human Rights Council said the city’s Department of Human Rights says Services They can accommodate arriving migrants in the remaining four hotels at the present time. When demand picks up, they will restart this hotel again.
who sought temporary shelter through city resources; However, more and more people are struggling to find a place to go after these services end. When hotels aren’t just kept online or extended stays for those experiencing homelessness if there’s availability in shelters, it boils down to spending, Johnston says.
“The length of stay for us right now is not based on the availability of our shelter system or hotels. We often use hotels or churches. It’s just a matter of how much the city can afford,” Johnston said.
Mayor on House1000
One of Johnston’s proudest accomplishments in his first 100 days in office is the launch of…By the end of the year.
“We still think we have a really good path to getting to that 1,000 because we knew it was going to take some time to locate, permit (and) prepare these sites,” Johnston said. “Some people say, ‘Well, you’re only 200, doesn’t that mean you’re not going to make it?’
Johnston says his administration knows that most of these units, whether small communities or hotel rooms, won’t be up and running until November and December, which, he says, still puts the city on track to meet that goal.
“They all take the same amount of time to get them, develop leases, get permits, do construction, get electricity, build tiny houses or get hotel rooms,” he said. “So, oftentimes, this can take a lot longer to do. City workers have done a great job of making this happen on a faster timeline, but we believe this is absolutely the time of urgency and not a day should be wasted.”
However, some advocates for those experiencing homelessness and council leaders have expressed concerns about how quickly the process will move to create these communities.
“I don’t think there’s a version where we’re moving too fast. If you think we’re moving too fast, just walk down the streets of Denver and see people who are homeless and living in unsafe conditions in the freezing cold. Cold as winter comes,” Johnston said. “There is no such thing as moving too quickly on this humanitarian crisis.”
This week, some residents who live in the neighborhood near 5500 E. Yale Ave. celebrated. Johnston has decided to remove this site from the shortlist of proposed small community sites. Johnston says part of the reason for canceling the site was community concern, but it was also about timing.
He added: “It would have required the demolition of an existing building on the site, and although that was possible, it could not have been done quickly.” “And it’s for a relatively very small number of units that can be put on that site, so it’s a lot of construction costs for a smaller amount of results.”
He praised neighbors for stepping up to provide other options, where District 4 can still have its own small community site.
“They said, ‘We know this is a crisis, we want to help solve it, and we think every neighborhood should be a part of it,'” Johnston said. “So we are very optimistic that we will have a location in that council district and I think the neighbors will support that.”
For those who have expressed concerns that House1000 is just a bandage on a much larger problem Denver faces with access to affordable housing, Johnston says the solution is a step-by-step process.
“You’re trying to climb the housing ladder. Right now, we have over 1,500 people who aren’t on any rung of the ladder. They’re literally sleeping on the city floor, or on the ground in cold weather.” “Where they run the risk of being exploited,” Johnston said. “The first step is to move these people out of unsheltered homelessness and into temporary housing. These are hotel rooms. These are small communities. These are rental units.
Long-term, the city plans to create 3,000 units of affordable housing each year for the unhoused as well as other low-income residents, Johnston says.
“This is for teachers, nurses, servers, retail workers and social workers all over the city who can’t afford to live in this city right now,” Johnston said. “This is part of our larger focus on affordable units. We know there is a shortage of these units for everyone.”
However, he also says it is necessary to create micro-communities and hotels as a first step to getting the most vulnerable off the streets.
“All of these sites have workforce training, mental health support, addiction support — all on site,” Johnston said. “Once we provide them with those supportive services, the plan is to move them to the next rung on the ladder, which is to move them into their permanent housing where they have their own lease to pay for.”
Crime and public safety
In addition to supporting the city’s most vulnerable residents, Johnston also addressed questions about how to deal with the issue.
“On public safety, we have also made historic commitments,” Johnston said. “This budget includes an increase of 167 new officers to put on the streets, so we can actually get faster 911 responses (and) people can be sure their cases are investigated and closed.”
Johnston says helping those who are not housed in transitional housing and funding more mental health positions and other alternative responses will make a difference in improving public safety.
“Right now, our officers are spending so much of their time responding to encampments that they can’t make the best use of it,” he said. “We will put more officers on the streets, we will reduce the amount of time those officers have to spend in encampments and we will be more responsive to the rest of the city’s needs.”