One of the great joys of living downtown is walking everywhere. Need a dozen eggs? A grocery is a few blocks away. A bottle of wine? I know a great little place.
Dry cleaners? Hardware store? Pharmacy? Ditto.
Along the routes to all these places are coffee shops, sidewalk cafes, outdoor sculptures and all manner of glittering holiday decorations. Also along the way are the smudged faces of unhoused people who often gather in doorways of vacant buildings or on the sidewalk near a portable bathroom.
I’ve come to recognize a few. One young man I see regularly is an awful mess.
Blond and disheveled in filthy clothes, he can be found crouching in a corner on the Millennium Bridge, cooking some kind of drug with a cigarette lighter and a piece of foil, cursing the wind.
Other days I see him sprawled on the pavement along the 16th Street Mall, sound asleep in mid-afternoon with pedestrians walking around him, stepping over his rumpled backpack or even his foot. Still other times he can be seen sitting on the sidewalk, staring blankly into, well, nothingness.
He’s alone, always alone, often babbling incomprehensibly.
Under New York City Mayor Eric Adams’ new plan to address unhoused people with untreated mental illness, he would be removed from the street and hospitalized involuntarily.
The law doesn’t prevent the city from intervening to help people with mental illness, Adams told the New York Times. Neglecting them has created “a crisis we see all around us.” Caring for them is our “moral responsibility.”
Damn the legal torpedoes, he’s saying, full speed ahead.
Similar efforts are under way in California, Washington state and several other cities around the world. Each policy has its own guidelines and limitations. None is a silver bullet.
All have sparked bitter controversy.
But the status quo is clearly untenable as the young man who is slowly dying on the streets in downtown Denver attests. There must be a way to intervene to save his life without trampling his rights.
As the campaigns ramp up for those who seek to be Denver’s next mayor, the intractable problems of homelessness and mental illness will come into sharp relief. Voters already are demanding it.
And instead of just kowtowing to the NIMBY crowds in the city’s fanciest ZIP codes, this time the hopefuls will have to provide real solutions.
Of the candidates who have announced so far, a few stand out for their understanding of the situation.
Among them, Trinidad “Trini” Rodriguez may be unique in that he grew up in public housing in Denver and has been a longtime commissioner for the Denver Housing Authority.
Leslie Herod spearheaded the effort to create Caring for Denver, a nonprofit that provides interventions for people experiencing mental illness and substance abuse. She also was involved in the creation of specialized policing programs to respond to 911 calls involving the unhoused, the mentally ill and those with substance abuse conditions.
And Jesse Parris has established a reputation for advocating for the homeless at Denver City Council meetings.
Others are still defining their approaches to the issues.
Chris Hansen has said he would maintain the city’s much-debated, occasionally enforced camping ban and work to build relationships with nonprofits that provide services. He also has said increasing the supply of affordable housing would be a priority.
Kelly Brough has said she “will end encampments.” She promises to better manage the funds spent on programs for the homeless, will build more affordable housing and will convert vacant office space into homes so that the unhoused have places to live.
Mike Johnston, who was involved in the creation of a housing program through his work with Gary Community Ventures, has said the sweeps of encampments would continue under his leadership, but he would work to house people in communities where they could maintain the kind of supportive human connections they developed in the camps. He also said he would provide services such as mental health care and job readiness.
On and on, the policy ideas continue to unfold.
Still, at this point, the candidates are long on promises and short on details.
But as the winter bears down on the people sleeping on benches, in makeshift tents and over steam vents on the sidewalks — and on those of us who helplessly witness their misery every day — the urgency of the problem will compel serious contenders to deliver more than mere platitudes.
The next mayor will be the candidate who is truly committed to solving the complex problem of homelessness with policies that are specific, creative — and feasible.
It will be the person who can mobilize the community with discipline and compassion, and the keen understanding that the dangerously sick young man passed out on the floor in Union Station is a voter’s son or brother or best friend.
It will be someone with the guts to stare into the glassy eyes of a homeless addict and say, “You need help.”
The next mayor won’t have the luxury of just walking away.
Diane Carman is a Denver communications consultant.
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