Denver Mayor Mike Johnston’s micro-communities explained
Denver Mayor Mike Johnston has his sales pitch for homeless micro-communities down pat. But in some neighborhoods near proposed sites, the plan is being met with confusion, suspicion and, at times, misconceptions.
The micro-community concept was the keystone of Johnston’s campaign promise to end unsheltered homelessness in the city in the next four years. Now, in the first major step toward meeting that promise, it’s the centerpiece of his rush to provide shelter to 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 the temporary housing sites at more than a dozen town hall-style meetings over the last few weeks.
The Denver Post has gathered answers to several questions about the micro-communities plan as work continues to open the first sites.
What is a micro-community?
It’s a temporary community set up for homeless people using quick-to-build structures and on-site services. Under Johnston’s plan, micro-communities are intended to enable the moving of entire encampments of people living on the streets to a safer, more stable place while the city works long-term to build permanent supportive housing.
The idea builds off of — and scales up — the tiny-home village-model pioneered in Denver by the nonprofit Colorado Village Collaborative. It relies on a housing-first approach to tackle unsheltered homelessness in Denver, which this year ballooned to include 1,423 people living on the streets, according to the latest point-in-time count performed in January.
Why use this model?
Johnston has said permanent housing, such as a home or an apartment, is the end goal of his initiative. But micro-communities will provide a stopgap that can benefit both unhoused people and the nearby neighborhoods.
The unsheltered residents who move into these communities will step up a rung on the ladder of housing stability while the city at large benefits from fewer people living in tents on streets or sidewalks.
“Tiny homes offer a locked door, privacy, security, a physical address, access to (a) shower, bathroom (and) kitchen, and they’re units that don’t take $500,000 and three years to build,” Johnston said at a town hall last month. “And they come in a community that offers wraparound services, offers mental health support, addiction treatment (and) workforce training. So you’re getting back on your feet (and) getting stabilized.”
Don’t these already exist with ice fishing tents?
The Colorado Village Collaborative operates three temporary Safe Outdoor Spaces in the city today. Those sites are largely made up of ice fishing tents. Johnston has said the new micro-communities will not use tents.
He and other city officials favor more substantial — and more expensive — temporary housing units. So do federal record keepers. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development classifies people living in “camping grounds” as unsheltered for the purpose of point-in-time counts, including folks living in Safe Outdoor Spaces.
Johnston’s plan calls for the use of hard-structured tiny homes and prefabricated Pallet shelters, which are so named because they are shipped in pieces on wooden pallets.
How many micro-communities, and where will they go?
Johnston hopes to open seven to 10 micro-communities, along with hotels converted into shelter space. He has said his goal is to “decentralize” homeless services in Denver — long an objective for city officials, at least in theory.
The mayor aims to choose at least one site in each of Denver’s 11 City Council districts. So far, that goal is a work in progress. Last month, the mayor’s office released a preliminary list of 11 properties, two of which will be hotel conversions. The other nine are parcels of vacant land that could host micro-communities. The list did not include sites in council districts 1, 2 or 5 (in northwest, southwest and east Denver), but Johnston emphasized that property talks are ongoing in those parts of the city.
How were sites chosen?
According to the Johnston administration, the criteria used to vet the preliminary list include:
- Proximity to public transit
- Access to water and power utilities
- Whether sites meet basic zoning requirements
- Distance from schools
Officials zeroed in on sites of at least a half acre, large enough to host 40 to 100 tiny homes or Pallet shelters.
When will micro-communities begin opening?
Johnston has said he hopes to schedule “moving days” starting in November and December. The plan is for people currently living in a street encampment to be relocated, as a group, to a micro-community. While new communities are not likely to open all at once, the administration does want them to open in quick succession.
“In order to scale our services and meet the needs of the community, we need to open multiple sites quickly and equitably across the city,” Jordan Fuja, a spokeswoman for the mayor’s office, wrote in an email.
How long will they operate?
To make financial sense, a site must be able to host a community for at least two years, according to the administration.
What’s the cost for each community?
Specific estimates aren’t yet available, but Johnston has put the ballpark cost at $25,000 per unit for buildings, with some variance from property to property. That rough estimate tracks with a recent city contract for 200 Pallet homes and associated support structures — including bathrooms, kitchens and community gathering spaces — at a $5.1 million purchase cost.
Add it up, and even the smallest projected micro-community, with 40 housing units, would cost $1 million for the structures alone. Then there’s the setup cost, which is expected to add another $1 million per site, Cole Chandler, the mayor’s top homelessness adviser, told council members in August.
Operating each site also will cost the city money. Neighboring Aurora has two temporary Pallet-shelter sites, and each costs about $1.3 million a year to run, according to Aurora city spokesman Ryan Luby.
Conservative estimates suggest even a small site would cost Denver more than $3 million to establish and operate for one year.
Where will the money come from?
Johnston’s administration plans to tap the city’s existing financial resources while pursuing state and federal support, officials say. There’s some wiggle room, but also uncertainty.
The money for the recent Pallet shelter contract is coming from the Denver Department of Housing Stability’s operating budget, and set-up costs for communities are expected to be covered by already funded on-call public works contracts. The city’s budget this year for housing and homelessness resolution is $254 million — though much of it was earmarked for existing programs and nearly a third came from one-time federal pandemic-relief aid.
Charity also is in the mix, with city plans saying Johnston may also call on businesses and foundations to provide support.
Who will manage the sites?
The city has solicited proposals from organizations interested in operating sites and providing wraparound services, with a Sept. 11 deadline. To date, only the Colorado Village Collaborative has operated tiny home villages in Denver.
CEO Dede de Percin said the organization was preparing a proposal for Johnston’s effort but has to keep in mind its limited capacity to take on more responsibilities in the city. It’s possible national operators also could take on sites.
How will the city decide who gets access first?
The City Council’s homelessness committee soon will consider a $6.4 million contract with the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless that would make that organization the city’s lead “encampment resolution outreach” provider.
The contract would task the coalition with talking to entire encampments of people at one time and matching all residents with shelter or housing options based on appropriateness, availability and their choices. That would include the micro-communities.
Micro-community sites also could be tailored to serve specific “affinity groups,” including families, people with pets or marginalized groups such as members of the LGBTQ community, according to the administration.
Will residents have to be sober?
This answer from Johnston rankled some attendees at a recent open house. But Johnston and administration officials argue that setting barriers such as alcohol or drug sobriety would just drive people away before they even get into a community.
The stability of housing, paired with access to treatment and support services, will give them a much better chance of overcoming their addiction challenges, he said. While counterintuitive to some, that approach lines up with best practices laid out by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Will micro-communities allow pets?
Yes. A recurring barrier to getting some people to use traditional shelters is that they don’t want to part with their animals.
How will the city ensure the communities are safe?
Operators are expected to staff micro-communities around the clock to ensure laws and community rules are being followed. Rules won’t allow violence or the selling or trading of drugs, the mayor’s office says.
Operators will have the option to kick residents out if they are not abiding by rules, and arrests would be possible depending on the situation, said Fuja, the mayor’s spokeswoman.
Beyond that, once sites are chosen and permitted, the city plans to meet with neighborhood groups to create “good neighbor agreements” that will set additional conditions for how the sites operate. Conditions might include quiet hours and stipulations about lighting and fencing.
Johnston and site supporters are convinced the communities will have a positive impact on public safety. They cite the relatively few 911 calls tied to problems at existing temporary sanctioned communities compared to the thousands made for street encampments or traditional shelters last year.
In a study of the city’s first tiny home village in 2017, researchers with the University of Denver found no evidence that crime increased in the neighborhood immediately surrounding the village in the six months after it opened.
If you have a suggested question about the micro-communities plan that could be answered in this story, contact reporter Joe Rubino at [email protected].
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