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An aerial view of downtown Denver. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

In his first full day as Denver’s new mayor, Mike Johnston on Tuesday morning declared a state of emergency around homelessness and announced that he plans to house 1,000 unsheltered people by the end of the year.

Johnston said he will tour 78 neighborhoods across the city to accomplish his goal and that his staff will work with landlords, property owners and hotels to find housing availability. His administration is also looking at nearly 200 public plots to place tiny home communities where people experiencing homelessness can be housed.

“This is what we think is the most important crisis the city is facing,” Johnston said at a news conference at the Denver’s City and County Building. “We took the oath yesterday to commit to taking on this problem.”

Johnston was sworn in as Denver’s first new mayor in 12 years on Monday. The homelessness declaration and plan are his first major actions as Denver’s new leader.

Homelessness has been an increasingly polarizing issue in Denver and it was a major focus on Johnston’s mayoral campaign. He vowed to create tiny home communities on city-owned property as a way to get people off the street.

Johnston said the state of emergency declaration will help the city access state and “possibly” federal funding. He also said it would allow the city to more quickly work through construction, renovation and permitting processes for new housing units.

“I think it also sends a real message to all the rest of the state that we are deeply focused on this,” he said.

Denver’s 13 City Council members stood behind Johnston on Tuesday as he made the announcement, but they didn’t speak at the news conference. The council will still need to approve any budget items to address the problem despite the state of emergency declaration, Johnston said.

The mayor’s office will appoint 10 people to help them with the goal of housing 1,000 unsheltered people by the end of 2023, as well as implementing the emergency declaration.

The state of emergency itself will not have a cost for the city but the various programs may, Johnston said. The city will use its own budget along with applying for state grants to help fund the programs.

“We’ll have the resources we need to make this happen,” he said.

Group of people speaking in Denver
Denver Mayor Mike Johnston spoke from the Denver City and County building Tuesday morning, surrounded by City Council members. (Elliott Wenzler, The Colorado Sun)

Johnston said he will be talking directly with unhoused people as his team creates a plan. 

“We have real evidence to support that housing first as a strategy will get the great majority of people access to the support they need to then access those follow up resources,” he said. 

Johnston said there are about 1,400 unsheltered people in the city right now, according to the city’s most recent point-in-time survey, among about 5,000 who were experiencing homelessness on a single night in 2022.

Johnston’s inaugural address Monday was centered on the theme of the “dream of Denver.” He mentioned housing costs, safety, mental illness, addiction and reimagining downtown as some of his top priorities.

“Those of us on this stage took an oath today,” he said at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, “but for us to succeed, every Denverite must take their own oath, an oath to dream, to serve and to deliver. To dream (of) a Denver bold enough to include all of us, to serve our city above ourselves, to march on shoulder to shoulder, undeterred by failure, until we deliver results.”

Thirteen City Council members, the clerk and recorder and the auditor were also sworn in Monday.

Elliott Wenzler is a reporter for the Colorado Sun, covering local politics, the state legislature and other topics. She also assists with The Unaffiliated newsletter. Previously, she was a community reporter in Douglas County for Colorado Community Media. She has won awards for her reporting and photography. Elliott graduated from the University of Arkansas with a degree in editorial journalism and minors in both business and Spanish. She is also an avid rock climber, snowboarder and hiker. Twitter: @ElliottWenzler