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Denver housing officials say they're trying. Not hard enough, unhoused community members say.

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Two people experiencing homelessness address Denver city officials and urge them to take more action on solving homelessness.

DENVER — While they recognized the problem is still pervasive, Denver housing and homelessness officials said Friday, Dec. 16 at a panel for Colorado media that homelessness in the state’s capitol city has been a high priority for government officials and social service nonprofits.

Jamie Rife, executive director of the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative, said the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated an already-existing homelessness crisis. As many people lost their jobs, fell into more extreme debt and were forced out of their homes, Rife and others on the panel agreed that the early days of the ongoing pandemic drove a surge in the number of unhoused people in Denver and its surrounding areas.

“The pandemic highlighted the inherent vulnerability to COVID-19 for people who don’t have a home,” Rife said. “We’re coming together and understanding that homelessness is solvable but we have to do it together, and it’s going to take all of us to do it.”

Denver City Council recently passed a record-high housing and homelessness budget, with nearly $254 million put towards building new units, purchasing hotels and other initiatives meant to help those living on the streets get into permanent housing.

While officials on the panel acknowledged that solving a crisis would take more than a one-year spending project, they were hopeful the historic money sum would at least put a dent in the issue.

“We have to have our pedal to the metal on responding to the emergent need as well as the strategic, long-term resolution,” said Brita Fisher, executive director of the Department of Housing Stability. “Your health and your home are so connected.”

Fisher also pointed to the recent surge of migrants who arrived in the city in recent weeks as a pressing issue for building more shelters and long-term housing. As of Dec. 16, 369 migrants are staying in emergency shelter at Denver recreation centers. City officials estimate approximately 800 migrants have been served by the city since Dec. 9, 2022.

“It’s not unexpected that when somebody is seeking services or help, the place they will find is a shelter for people experiencing homelessness,” Fisher said, adding that Denver is a common destination for migrants because of its major airport and transportation systems.

As temperatures continue to drop, wind chill picks up and sleeping outside becomes increasingly brutal, Fisher said homeless shelters are filling up even faster than usual. City libraries and recreation centers are open during the day, but people experiencing homelessness are left to their own devices at night if they don’t qualify for a shelter spot.

Ultimately, panelists agreed once someone enters the homelessness cycle, it’s difficult to get out. Not having a physical address or cell phone can inhibit one’s ability to find a job, and a lack of stable sleeping arrangements can put a serious damper on mental and physical health.

“When people come to us and they don’t have a place to stay, it also means they don't have other services that they need in order to truly live and thrive,” said Vaneccia Kerr, chief impact officer at Mile High United Way. “What are the things people actually need in order to live those dreams and fulfill those dreams?”

While the solution is multi-faceted, those on the panel also agreed that building housing, securing hotels and providing attainable places to live were key steps to getting people off the streets and into higher qualities of life. 

“Homelessness is a housing issue and homelessness ends in a house,” Rife said. “We’re going to keep seeing a rise if we do not address the housing crisis in our region.”

Though officials saw more money and planned resource centers as integral parts of the solution, people experiencing homelessness felt the city was doing more talking than fixing.

“We keep hearing from you, but I keep seeing the same results that are not putting people in housing and keeping people in housing, and that is wrong,” said Jerry Burton, a person experiencing homelessness in Denver. A handful of crowd members roared in applause as Burton concluded his remarks.

Burton voiced that complaint to city officials at the quarterly Homeless Advisory meeting, a meeting open for unhoused Denverites to share concerns in an open forum with city officials. The meetings are a result of a settlement in the Lyall v. Denver lawsuit, in which a judge ruled that Denver officials had to provide a space to listen to unsheltered residents.

Others in the meeting said they felt the Denver Police Department’s sweeps of those living outside were inhumane and only exacerbated the problem.

“Imagine being in your tent at 4 a.m. sleeping and now you have cops telling you you have five minutes, telling you to pack everything you own, and if you’re not done, your stuff is being thrown in the back of a garbage truck,” said Ana Miller, a homeless advocate with House Keys Action Network Denver.

Miller said she was homeless for 30 years and recently got into housing. Throughout her 30 years of homelessness, Miller said she developed respiratory issues from having to sleep outside in dangerously cold temperatures and still has nightmares of negative interactions with police officers.

“This is exacerbating people’s physical and mental health issues,” Miller said. “People are going to die on the streets this winter.”

Alison Berg is a multimedia journalist at Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach her at

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