Take Five! Q & A with Mayor John Hickenlooper


Expert Q & A | April 2, 2007

Mayor John Hickenlooper
Denver, Colorado

What is the newest issue emerging in homelessness policy?
With over 300 homeless plans in place across the country, three issues have emerged that deserve particular attention: homeless veterans, prisoner reentry and faith-based partnerships:

  • Denver’s Road Home, our 10-year plan to end homelessness, continues to explore feasibility of expanding housing and support services for homeless veterans. In January, in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and local partners, we helped open Denver Homeless Vets First, a short-term transitional housing facility with treatment services and other support systems.
  • With respect to prisoner reentry, Denver is examining how to develop policies and programs to help prisoners re-enter society via housing rather than continue a revolving door of disconnected services and treatment that often culminates in repeat offenses and recidivism.
  • Denver’s diverse faith communities play a significant role in Denver’s Road Home. Under our Family and Senior Homelessness Initiative, implemented in 2006, faith-based organizations and institutions provide mentoring teams, security deposits and first month’s rent to get homeless families into housing while providing non-financial assistance and support to help them get back on their feet.

What issue in homelessness policy should everyone be reminded of?
Homelessness is a regional challenge that requires community-wide collaboration on solutions. In order for plans such as Denver’s Road Home to be successful, the community must own and invest in them. Members from the public, private and nonprofit sectors, as well as formerly and currently homeless persons, actively participate as decision makers in all of our committees as well as our Homeless Commission. The Denver’s Road Home fundraising strategy seeks 50 percent of the funds from public dollars, 25 percent from foundations, and 25 percent from corporations and individuals. Through our partnership with the Mile High United Way, we have raised 75 percent of the funds needed for Years 1 to 4 of the plan. With this foundation, we are addressing a number of issues with implications for the local, state and national levels, including assisting homeless people with identification and legal documents and planning for discharge from our prisons, jails and hospital systems.

How did you start working in the field of homelessness (or housing)?
Prior to running for mayor, as a downtown Denver resident and business owner, I saw the social and humanitarian costs of homelessness and was involved with local nonprofit organizations that work on this issue. The financial costs of homelessness are staggering. It is much more costly to address hospital care, law enforcement and homeless services on the back end than to implement a Housing First model with treatment services and accountability on the front end. From both a fiscal and social standpoint, Denver is moving out of the business of managing homelessness and into the routine of ending it.

What would become Denver’s Road Home was born as an idea on the campaign trail when I was running for mayor, the first elected office I ever pursued. (I had never even run for student council.) After our administration took office in 2003, we convened a commission to develop and recommend a comprehensive plan to address the root causes of homelessness and bring an end to homelessness for the Denver community. Forty-one commissioners and 350 community volunteers conducted a detailed research and planning process during the course of 18 months to develop a plan that was approved by Denver City Council and myself in 2005. Denver’s Road Home is now transitioning from development to implementation.

Where do you draw your inspiration?
I draw my inspiration from seeing a community come together and owning the change that we seek to create. We are in the midst of an initiative that has brought together the public, private and nonprofit sectors, and we have a plan in which homeless and formerly homeless citizens participate as equal players in decision making. We are a part of something here in Denver that is working. Each day we see homeless men, women and children find the courage and the strength to make real changes their lives.

Why do you think ending homelessness is possible?
We believe that with services, compassion and accountability, we can transition people from lives on the streets to lives of stability and self sufficiency. We are working to create a balance of service delivery such as housing, treatment services and job training with the expectation of responsibility and self-reliance from those who receive services. For example, participants must participate in social service programs and pay 30 percent of their income for housing.

Not only is an end to homelessness possible, it is happening right now thanks to the efforts of a diverse group of stakeholders, our Housing First program, and measurable goals, objectives and outcomes. Just six months into implementing our plan, we noted an 11.4 percent decrease in homelessness in the City and County of Denver. During the first year of implementation, our goal was to add 320 units of housing last year and we added 423. Our goal was to mentor 100 families last year and we mentored 121. We are seeing results.

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