Small Communities Denver Mayor Mike Johnston explained

Safe Outdoor Space resident Randall Jones stands inside his platform shelter in the community near West 13th Avenue and Quivas Street on June 15, 2023, in Denver. Denver is looking to use similar shelters in new small communities for the homeless in other locations. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

Denver Mayor Mike Johnston has a sales pitch for small homeless communities. But in some neighborhoods near the proposed sites, the plan is met with confusion, skepticism, and sometimes misconceptions.

The small community concept was a cornerstone of Johnston’s campaign promise to end unprotected homelessness in the city in the next four years. And now, in the first major step toward fulfilling that promise, it has become the centerpiece of his push to provide shelter to the 1,000 people living on the streets before the year is out.

As his administration works to beat the clock, Johnston has argued his case for temporary housing sites in more than a dozen town hall-style meetings over the past few weeks.

The Denver Post has collected answers to several questions about the small communities plan as work continues to open the first sites.

What is a micro community?

It is a temporary community created for the homeless using quickly built structures and on-site services. Under Johnston’s plan, micro communities aim to enable entire camps of people living on the streets to be moved to a safer, more stable location while the city works long-term to build permanent supportive housing.

The idea is based on the cottage village model pioneered in Denver by the nonprofit Colorado Village Cooperative. It is building on a housing-first approach to address unprotected homelessness in Denver, which has swelled this year to include 1,423 people living on the streets, according to the last chronological count in January.

Why use this model?

Johnston said permanent housing, such as a house or apartment, is the ultimate goal of his initiative. But the small communities will provide a temporary buffer that can benefit both the unsettled people and the surrounding neighbourhoods.

Unsheltered residents who move into these communities will move up a rung on the housing stability ladder while the city generally benefits from fewer people living in tents on the streets or sidewalks.

“Tiny homes offer an enclosed door, privacy, security, physical address, access to (a) shower and bathroom (and) kitchen, and they’re units that don’t take $500,000 and three years to build,” Johnston said. City Hall last month. “And they come into a community that offers comprehensive services, offers mental health support, addiction treatment (and) workforce training. So you get back on your feet (and) settle down.

John Sharp, a Safe Outdoor Space resident, walks past several tents within the community near W. 13th Avenue and Quivas Street in Denver on June 15, 2023. (Photo by Andy Crouse/The Denver Post)

Aren’t these already found with ice fishing tents?

The Colorado Village Collaborative operates three temporary safe outdoor spaces in the city today. These sites consist largely of ice fishing tents. The new small communities will not use tents, Johnston said.

He and other city officials favor larger, more expensive temporary housing units. So do federal record keepers. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development classifies people living in “campgrounds” as unsheltered for the purpose of the census, including people living in secure outdoor spaces.

Johnston’s plan calls for the use of small, heavily constructed homes and prefabricated wooden pallet shelters, so named because they are shipped in pieces on pallets.

How many small communities are there, and where will they go?

Johnston hopes to open between seven and 10 small communities, along with hotels that will be converted into shelters. He has said his goal is to “decentralize” homeless services in Denver — a long-term goal of city officials, at least in theory.

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The mayor aims to select at least one site in each of the 11 Denver City Council districts. So far, this goal is a work in progress. Last month, the mayor’s office released a preliminary list of 11 properties, two of which will be converted into hotels. The other nine areas are plots of vacant land that can host small communities. The list did not include sites in Council Districts 1, 2 or 5 (in northwest, southwest and east Denver), but Johnston confirmed that ownership talks are continuing in those parts of the city.

How were the sites chosen?

According to the Johnston administration, the criteria used to screen the initial list include the following:

  • Proximity to public transportation
  • Access to water and energy facilities
  • Whether the sites meet basic zoning requirements
  • Distance from schools

Officials focused on sites of at least half an acre, large enough to host 40 to 100 small homes or shelters.

When will small communities start opening up?

Johnston said he hopes to schedule “action days” starting in November and December. The plan is to move people currently living in a street camp, as a group, into a small community. While the new communities are unlikely to open all at once, management wants them to open in quick succession.

“In order to expand our services and meet the needs of the community, we need to quickly and fairly open multiple locations across the city,” Jordan Voga, a spokeswoman for the mayor’s office, wrote in an email.

How long will they work?

For it to make financial sense, the site must be able to host a community for at least two years, according to management.

What is the cost per community?

Exact estimates are not yet available, but Johnston has put the ballpark cost at $25,000 per unit for the buildings, with some variance from property to property. This rough estimate tracks a recent contract the city entered into to purchase 200 pallet homes and associated support structures — including bathrooms, kitchens and community gathering spaces — for a purchase cost of $5.1 million.

Add it all up, and even the smallest planned community, with 40 residential units, would cost $1 million for the buildings alone. Then there’s the cost of setup, which is expected to add another $1 million per site, Cole Chandler, the mayor’s senior advisor on homelessness, told council members in August.

It would also cost the city money to operate each site. Nearby Aurora has two temporary shelter sites, each costing about $1.3 million a year to operate, according to Aurora city spokesman Ryan Luby.

Conservative estimates suggest that getting a small site up and running for one year would cost Denver more than $3 million.

A dead mouse lies flat on the ground at the south end of a CDOT-owned property near South Santa Fe Drive and West Evans Avenue in Denver on Friday, September 1, 2023. The property is under consideration to host a small community for people experiencing homelessness. (Photo by Eric Lutzens/The Denver Post)

Where will the money come from?

Officials say the Johnston administration plans to leverage the city’s existing finances while seeking state and federal support. There is some wiggle room, but there is also uncertainty.

Funds for the latest platform shelter contract come from the Denver Housing Stabilization Department’s operating budget, and construction costs for communities are expected to be covered by already-funded public works contracts upon request. The city’s budget this year to solve housing and homelessness is $254 million — though most of it was allocated to existing programs and nearly a third came from one-time federal pandemic relief aid.

Philanthropy is also in the mix, as city plans indicate Johnston may also invite businesses and organizations to provide support.

Who will manage the sites?

The city has requested proposals from organizations interested in operating the sites and providing wraparound services, with a deadline of Sept. 11. To date, the Colorado Village Collaborative has only managed tiny home villages in Denver.

CEO Didi De Bersin said the organization is preparing a proposal for Johnston’s effort but must be mindful of its limited capacity to take on more responsibilities in the city. It is also possible that national operators will take over the sites.

How will the city decide who can arrive first?

The City Council’s Homelessness Committee will soon consider a $6.4 million contract with the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, which would make that organization the city’s leading provider of “encampment resolution outreach.”

The contract will task the coalition with speaking to entire camps of people at a time and matching all residents with shelter or housing options based on suitability, availability and their choices. This includes small communities.

Micro-community sites can also be designed to serve specific “affinity groups,” including families, people with pets or marginalized groups such as members of the LGBTQ community, according to the department.

Do residents have to be sober?

no.

This answer from Johnston angered some attendees at a recent open house. But Johnston and administration officials argue that putting up barriers like alcohol or drug use would push people away before they even reach the community.

Housing stability, coupled with access to treatment and support services, will give them a much better chance of overcoming the addiction challenges they face, he said. Although this approach is counterintuitive to some, it is consistent with best practices established by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Will small communities allow pets?

Yes. A recurring barrier that keeps some people from using traditional shelters is that they don’t want to give up their animals.

How will the city ensure the safety of communities?

Operators are expected to staff small communities around the clock to ensure laws and community rules are followed. The mayor’s office says the rules will not allow violence, drug sales or trafficking.

Operators will have the option to evict residents if they do not adhere to the rules, and arrests will be possible depending on the situation, said Fuga, the city’s mayor’s spokeswoman.

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