The first audit of how Denver responds to unauthorized homeless encampments found the city is mostly compliant with the law and a 2016 court case where plaintiffs argued taking personal property from people who are homeless without due process violated the constitution.
The Unauthorized Encampment Response Program must work harder to ensure people who are homeless can easily get to any possessions removed from an encampment, which is especially challenging when belongings are moved to the city’s long-term storage facility at 1449 Galapago St., according to findings of the audit, released Thursday morning.
Denver leaders also need to better outline and document the policies and procedures that guide the multiple agencies responsible for enforcement and outreach at encampments. For example, several departments and outreach teams don’t have finalized policies or procedures for monitoring encampments. They also don’t have policies and procedures to track and monitor data, according to the 103-page audit.
The city also is not tracking expenses related to homeless encampments or sufficiently monitoring invoices and performance by contractors, which hinders their ability to ensure those workers are in fact providing agreed-upon services, according to the audit.
The Denver Mayor’s Office did not conduct an analysis to identify the resources needed for the Unauthorized Encampment Response Program, which is made up of 10 city agencies and offices, and so the program may not be adequately staffed to meet its goals and responsibilities, according to the audit.
“The (Raymond) Lyall settlement seems to be a driving force behind what the city is doing, and to me, that’s kind of the base level of the way this should operate, so that we’re not violating people’s civil rights,” Denver Auditor Timothy O’Brien said. “Are there plans within the response program to go above and beyond? This is a very vulnerable population in Denver, especially the 1,313 people, who are living on the street.”
Laura Brudzynski, chief housing officer and executive director for the Denver Department of Housing Stability, said adequate housing is the solution to resolving homelessness, so the city is focused on creating affordable housing and supportive programs.
The city agreed to all 36 recommendations made by the auditor. If the city implements all recommendations by Dec. 31, Denver leaders will be better situated to ensure its encampment response program is effectively helping vulnerable people who are homeless while maintaining transparency with Denver residents about how it spends money to respond to unauthorized encampments, according to findings of the audit.
Denver has already implemented many of the recommendations in the audit report, city leaders wrote in a response to the audit’s findings Thursday afternoon.
“Chronic unsheltered homelessness is the most complex issue any city will manage, and we appreciate the audit team, over the course of many months, taking a hard look at how our city is approaching the challenge of encampments,” Mayor Michael B. Hancock said.
“More than a housing crisis, it’s a situation made more complicated amid a nationwide drug crisis, mental health crisis and continued fallout from the pandemic on our most vulnerable residents and communities,” he said.
A rise in homelessness
Each year in January, the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative and many other U.S. cities and counties conduct the point-in-time count, which gathers the number of people who are homeless on one of the coldest nights during the winter.
The most-recent count, on Jan. 24, 2022, showed 4,794 people were homeless that night in Denver.
Of those, 1,313, or more than 27%, were unsheltered. One in three people were homeless for the first time and most of the population were adults older than 25. People reported physical disabilities, mental health conditions and escaping domestic violence as reasons leading to homelessness. Men and people of color are overrepresented in local homelessness. Six percent of people between 18 and 24 were homeless, according to the 2022 count.
The number of people who were unsheltered increased between 2019 and 2022 while the number of people who were sheltered remained relatively the same. Many communities, including Denver, did not conduct an unsheltered count in 2021 because of increased risk of spreading the coronavirus.
Findings from this year’s count, which only provides a snapshot of local homelessness, will most likely be finalized and published during the summer, Denver Department of Housing Stability leaders said at an audit committee presentation Thursday morning.
Because the city does not track how much it spends on homeless encampments, the auditor sought to quantify the number itself from January 2019 through June 2022.
The auditor’s office asked the 10 city agencies involved in addressing homeless encampments to provide documentation related to costs for enforcement, outreach and cleanup efforts.
The estimated total of $13.65 million the agencies spent on enforcement, outreach and cleanup costs is likely an underestimate, according to the audit.
“While it’s good to have that total, without breaking it up by actual costs per sweep or by services used specifically for cleanups and sweeps, it doesn’t tell us much about how the city could better invest taxpayer funds on things other than camping ban enforcement,” said Cathy Alderman, chief communications and public policy officer for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.
Denver’s social impact bond program showed when cities provide housing to people, they save money often spent on jails, shelters and emergency rooms because unhoused people’s needs aren’t met.
Denverites will elect a new mayor on June 6. Alderman said she hopes the city can produce more accurate data about conducting sweeps at encampments, so that the new administration can use the number to make better budgetary decisions.
Alderman said she appreciates the recommendations demanded by the audit, but is hoping for more progress toward easing homelessness in Denver.
“I’m not saying that the recommendations that were made shouldn’t be followed, because they could lead to some improvements between the city and people who are sleeping outside. But I don’t think it (the audit) provides a lot of actionable steps toward homelessness resolution and the appropriate way to deal with homelessness as a city.”
A housing crisis, opioids and the COVID-19 pandemic
The affordable housing crisis has contributed to the growth of encampments. Housing prices have nearly doubled and median rent has increased by 78% over the past decade, according to Denver’s Department of Housing Stability.
The COVID-19 pandemic worsened the housing crisis, as unemployment rates quadrupled at one point and the city saw a 270% increase in requests for rent and utility assistance, according to the audit.
The ongoing opioid epidemic has also complicated encampment response over the past few years, according to the mayor’s office. Managers in the Department of Public Health and Environment also said it can be challenging to convince some people who are homelessness to accept help. In severe cases, people may have a mental health condition, anosognosia, that keeps them from understanding they need help or that using substances is dangerous, which contributes to their resistance to accepting services, according to the audit.
In March 2021, the mayor’s office and other city leaders met to discuss how to reduce the number of people who were living outdoors. Shortly after, the group created the Denver Unauthorized Encampment Response Program.
Under the program, several agencies are responsible for responding to encampments and those organizations also enforce city ordinances, conduct public health and safety assessments, connect people to human services and lead cleanups.
The city’s interaction with an encampment typically begins when outreach teams are sent to the site to help people who are homeless before a cleanup, according to the audit.
Most complaints about encampments come from nearby residents, Denver Department of Housing Stability leaders said Thursday morning.
The mayor’s office reviews complaints data twice daily. From January through June 2022, people submitted 117 nonemergency, public health complaints about an encampment at Glenarm Place and 21st Street in Five Points, and 97 complaints about an encampment at 20th Street and Chestnut Street in LoDo. The data the auditor reviewed showed the city cleaned up both sites twice during that period.
From Jan. 1 to June 30, 2022, Department of Public Health and Environment leaders completed 2,223 assessments, including 1,400 of encampments and 711 of recreational vehicles parked illegally.
In that same timeframe, the city completed 58 cleanups and canceled seven. Data included in the audit report also showed about 1,070 instances of personal property being stored from Jan. 1, 2019 to June 30, 2022.
Rules from the court case
In August 2016, the city was sued by local activist Raymond Lyall and others for allegedly seizing and discarding the property found at encampments without due process. The settlement agreement required the city to give at least seven days notice of large-scale cleanup unless removal is needed sooner and to provide 48-hours written notice before removing people’s personal property if the encampment does not pose a public health risk.
While the city complied with legal requirements in most instances, the audit found it did not fully comply with rules for storing and disposing of personal property, and it did not keep its property storage webpage updated.
The city threw away property from its storage facility before 60 days, 2% of the time, from Jan. 1, 2019 to June 30, 2022, according to the audit. During daily trash cleanups, Department of Transportation and Infrastructure staff and contractors threw away and stored property without providing the minimum 48-hour notice on unattended property.
About half of the time, dates were missing for when property was moved to the long-term storage facility. And about 4% of the time, dates were missing to indicate when property was thrown away. That means the city can’t know for sure if the items were held for the required amount of time, according to the audit.
Accurate documentation is important, human service providers said, because belongings — such as tents, bedding, clothing and medications — are needed for survival. If they are thrown away, a person may not have as much time for other activities, such as receiving mental health treatment.
The city’s property storage and removal webpage also did not include all required information, such as a phone number, location and hours of operation for the facility to help people retrieve their property, according to the audit.
While the city identified the webpage as the best way to communicate information about stored personal property to people who are homelessness, 311 call records showed people still may not know who to call.
For example, the audit team found that Denver 311 received only 63 calls where people inquired about personal property between Jan. 1, 2019, and June 30, 2022. Of the 346 calls that Denver 311 provided to auditors that included inquiries about property storage or belongings, 179 calls were relevant to homelessness personal property.
The city also wasn’t always in compliance with the part of the Lyall settlement that requires sensitivity training for all city employees who regularly interact with people who are homeless.
The Department of Transportation and Infrastructure was not able to provide attendance records to show employees had taken required training related to hazardous materials or trauma. Thus, employees from those departments may not have the knowledge or skills to interact with people who are homeless, or the ability to manage personal stress and exhaustion, according to the audit.
“These instances of noncompliance expose the city to potential future liabilities and lawsuits,” the audit states.