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Some of the dozens of tents surrounding Morey Middle School in Denver's Capitol Hill neighborhood on July 27, 2020. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Denver needs at least 30,000 affordable apartments to solve the homelessness crisis, eliminate tent encampments and restore the atmosphere that defined downtown. If everything goes as planned in the next five years, the city will add 5,000 to 6,000 units.

The huge gap was a key point as Denver business owners, increasingly frustrated by the state of downtown, discussed their concerns this week with organizations that help the homeless find housing and shelter.

“It’s bad and getting worse” was the title of the Colorado Chamber of Commerce agenda, and there was no argument from even the groups working to solve the problem. The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless and the state Office of Homeless Initiatives are providing more housing and services than ever before, but cannot keep up with the demand. 

Colorado needs about 14,600 supportive housing units, which come with not only rent assistance but mental health, addiction and medical care, according to a study by the national Corporation for Supportive Housing. Today, the Coalition for the Homeless has about 1,500 Denver units of supportive housing, considered the best solution for eliminating tent encampments and the need for city-sanctioned camps because they house those who are chronically homeless and often need therapy in order to stay housed. 

While business owners support long-term solutions for housing, they also want immediate help, said Beth Moyski, a senior vice president with Downtown Denver Partnership, which advocates for the business community. She regularly hears from business owners who say their customers feel unsafe downtown because of the number of people on the streets, including those who have mental illness and are talking to themselves as they pass by. 

“I get phone calls from property managers and property owners who say, ‘There is an encampment in the alley or across the street from me. What are you going to do about it?’” she said. 

Moyski said she is concerned not only about businesses, but about people who are homeless and hurt by others who are on the streets. “A lot of those folks are victimized by criminals who are bringing drugs into the environment and other activities that are illegal,” she said. “We are working with the police department to address the criminal element.”

The Downtown Denver Partnership also wants a higher level of staffing in the city’s Support Team Assisted Response, or STAR, program, an alternative to police response that involves sending a worker trained in mental health.

But homeless advocates said Colorado is due for big-time solutions. 

“We have the same goal: We want to see people off the streets,” said John Parvensky, head of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. “We want them to have a safe place to be, hopefully in their own home. But the approach is not to criminalize homelessness. It’s to create and build those solutions that we know work, and to do it at a scale that is commensurate with the need and not to solve 5% of the problem.” 

The number of people who are homeless is ever changing, as the annual homeless count shows that the majority of people sleeping in shelters and in tents became homeless within the previous year. The latest count found 6,888 people were homeless in the seven-county metro area on one night in January, which organizers say means there are an estimated 31,000 who are homeless over the course of the year.

Add to that a survey on the same night that found about 30 people who are homeless were hospitalized. And, statewide, there are 21,000 public school students who are homeless, either living in shelters, doubling up with other families or sleeping on friends’ couches.

In a room full of business professionals in suits, some wanted numbers: How much money would it take to get everyone off the streets and into housing? 

David Zucker, CEO of Zocalo Community Development, a real estate developer dedicated to affordable housing, attempted a rough calculation of the math. 

Each of the 14,600 supportive housing units needed in Colorado would cost about $300,000 to build, so that’s about $4.4 billion. The units would cost about $300 million per year to operate, including mental health and medical services. 

“A significant amount of money,” he said. 

But the investment could pay off in the long term, Zucker said, noting that it costs taxpayers thousands of dollars per year per person who is homeless in medical, jail and other services. Eliminating encampments could revitalize business, resulting in increased sales and tax revenues for the city and state. 

Kristin Toombs, director of the state Office of Homeless Initiatives, touted a new tax credit for businesses that invest in solving homelessness. Beginning in 2023, businesses that donate to create affordable housing or assistance for the homeless can receive tax credits of 25% of the total contribution in cities or 30% in rural areas.

Brandt Van Sickle, homelessness liaison for the City of Aurora, looks for unsheltered people on the morning of Jan. 25, 2022. Annual “point-in-time” observations and surveys, usually taking place in late January, are conducted early in the morning to avoid overcounting the population. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Moyski, with the Downtown Denver Partnership, said she agrees that long-term investments work. The city’s nationally recognized social impact bond program, which sends outreach workers to the streets to find the most frequent users of emergency rooms and jails and offers them housing, kept 77% of participants in housing and off the streets three years later. 

But while Colorado is waiting on results, business and property owners need more, she said. 

“They feel safer when there is a more uniformed presence, when they see outreach workers,” Moyski said. “The hard part is that gap in between.”

Jen is a co-founder and reporter at The Sun, where she writes about mental health, child welfare and social justice issues. Her first journalism job was at The Hungry Horse News in her home state of...