As Denver officials continue narrowing down the list of public and private properties that could host the so-called micro-communities that would house people living homeless on the city’s streets, Mayor Mike Johnston on Wednesday provided the most detailed picture yet of how those communities could be organized.
Holding his fourth news conference since declaring a state of emergency around homelessness in Denver less than a month ago, Johnston said the city is seeking bids from nonprofit organizations that would be willing to operate and provide support services to micro-communities. The proposed temporary communities — seven to 10 of them, according to the mayor and his top homelessness adviser, Cole Chandler — are a key pillar of Johnston’s effort to provide shelter for 1,000 unhoused people by the end of this year.
“We’ve structured these (request for proposals) differently from some in the past,” Johnston said. “They are designed for smaller, local, community-based nonprofits to step in and provide those services. So we have them from everything from site operations to wraparound services to direct provision of services from community-based providers.”
As Chandler noted Wednesday, the tiny homes villages and Safe Outdoor Sites camping areas that have served unhoused people in Denver to date have all been operated by a single provider. He would know. Chandler founded and is the past executive director of that provider, the Colorado Village Collaborative. The request for proposals and a conference with prospective bidders that was scheduled for later Wednesday were designed to spread that work around.
The Johnston administration has not placed a limit on how many groups it may contract with through the process but Wednesday’s press conference did provide more specifics about how and where the sites might be organized and the key components of a viable host property.
Here is what the mayor and his adviser said they are looking for:
• Organizations willing to operate sites that could accommodate 40 to 100 people.
• Organizations willing to serve what Chandler described as “affinity groups.” That might mean micro-communities just for women, LGBTQ or gender nonconforming individuals, communities just for veterans or even communities for people with service animals, Johnston said.
“We know each of those Denverites comes with different sets of needs and different types of supports,” Johnston said. “And we have nonprofit groups that have different kinds of expertise in that kind of support. So we think that the units may look different, the providers may look different and the communities of Denverites may look different.”
• The specific locations being eyed remain under wraps for now. The Denver Post obtained a preliminary list of 197 publicly-owned land parcels that the administration assembled that met broad criteria including that they are at least a half-acre in size, were within 100 feet of a water source and within a half-mile of a transit stop.
That list was not vetted and some of the sites — owned by a variety of entities including the Regional Transportation District and Denver Public Schools — may no longer be vacant or for sale, according to the Johnston administration.
On Wednesday, Johnston emphasized the most important criteria for available sites. They were: access to utilities, proximity to transit, meeting basic zoning and permitting criteria, proximity to food sources, and, perhaps most controversially, equitable distribution around the city.
The mayor has said repeatedly that his goal is to decentralize homelessness service in Denver and spread micro-communities among the city’s 11 City Council districts.
• Private properties are likely to be part of the micro-community effort and that is part of what is keeping potential sites from being publicized at this point.
Chandler last week went into a closed-door executive session with City Council members to discuss site negotiations. On Wednesday, Johnston noted that some private landowners have been eager to help.
“People are reaching out to us daily to offer sites and they’re really excited about being able to see this their land to be a proactive part of the long-term solution,” Johnston said.
Just how much the Johnston administration expects to spend on its mirco-communities program remains up in the air. The request for proposals deals with what services applicants can provide, not how much they would need to be paid for those services.
“We haven’t attached to that particular dollar amount. Basically, we’re asking organizations to bid and let us know what it takes to serve these communities and in the best way possible. And we’ll go from there as we look to negotiate and contract for the services but no particular dollar amount assigned per individual or per community at this point,” Chandler said.
The mayor feels that keeping the issue in the spotlight through regular media updates and nearly daily town hall-style meetings across the city is having a positive impact on the work. At the community meetings, Johnston said that one of the questions he hears is “How can I help?”
People volunteering their time and resources matters on several fronts starting with the outreach work happening in homeless encampments now. There will be more work to do soon, Johnston said.
“When it comes time to move towards moving days where we’re helping people relocate from places where they’re unsheltered into housing, we’ll have volunteers and supporters to help us be able to either close down and clean up encampments we’re closing or open up and welcome people into new housing units,” the mayor said.
The administration expects to open a request for proposals for builders that can construct micro units like tiny homes in the coming days, Chandler said.
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