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"Where were you?:" Mayor Hancock sends strong message to candidates, addresses homelessness

Mayor Hancock sends message to candidates about homelessness
Mayor Hancock sends message to candidates about homelessness 05:29

There is no issue Denver mayor Michael Hancock has struggled with more over the last 12 years than homelessness. Now, with just four months left in office, he is talking candidly about the problem.

"When I hear people say, 'I'm going to do this and end homelessness,' the reality is this is one of the most complex public policy issues because you're dealing with the human condition," he said. 

When he took office, the city spent $8 million a year on homelessness. Today, it's spending $250 million a year and yet, there are more, not fewer people living on the street.

Hancock says it's not just people who've lost their jobs or can't afford rent. He says the opioid and fentanyl crisis combined with a mental health crisis has caused the homeless population to explode.

He says it will take far more than additional affordable housing to solve the problem.

For years, the city has subscribed to a housing-first model, where there are no strings attached to shelter. 

For the first time, Hancock is talking about a different approach.

"When you approach people with housing-first, which I think is a laudable very important step for people who are ready to be housed, you can't do that with people who are dealing with an acute mental health challenge or are sick with substance abuse disorder. You have got to have a suite, a variety of services, that meet people where they are," he said. "That's what we've been trying to do here."

It's working for many. But some, he says, will never get treatment voluntarily. 

"We are bounded by laws that say you can't make somebody take treatment. We also have to take a look at our laws and say how can we compel people to get treatment," Hancock said. 

He says some people can't make rational decisions even when their lives are in danger. 

"You're talking to someone whose had addiction in their family, who has grabbed a loved one's hands and said, 'You're going. Let's go.'" Hancock expressed. 

He has lawyers looking into involuntary commitment in some cases and calling on the legislature to pass a law allowing police and outreach workers to force some into treatment.

He says the state has not done enough. 


"Not that long ago, I'm talking within the last year or two, you had people at the state saying that's a local problem and we as mayors and council members and county officials are saying, 'you got to lean in. This is our state issue.'" Hancock said. 

The legislature allocated $400 million last year for mental health services, but Hancock says it's not enough.

"How does that matriculate to more beds, more treatment facilities? There is nothing more tragic then to say we want to help people on our streets and then have nowhere to refer them," he said. 

He also took aim at those running to replace him. 17 people have qualified for the ballot and until now, Hancock says most of them had no interest in homelessness.

"I'm watching the candidates now for city council and mayor and, I'm not endorsing anyone but, I can count on one hand - one or two of the candidates - ever during their course before they ran for mayor said, 'What can I do to help?' That is a question as a voter I've got to ask, 'Where were you as these crisis were mounting and, if you cared so much, did you need a title, did you need an invitation to ask, 'How can I make a difference here?'" He said.   

It's easier he says for people to criticize, and worse.

"My life has been threatened. My safety has been threatened physically. These activists have come at me, they've showed up at my home. I think after almost 12 years in this office looking at this issue, studying it, trying creative approaches, I have yet to find the most perfect model. We're trying to help people. We're not trying to take rights from people. We're trying to help," Hancock said.


He pushed back on those who oppose the city's camping ban, saying many encampments have enough propane to level a city block. 

While the sweeps get all the attention, the mayor has implemented dozens of programs and initiatives. 

He has a cabinet dedicated to homelessness, created a department of housing stability, launched a first-of-its-kind affordable housing fund, helped pass bonds, secure grants, create tiny home villages and safe outdoor spaces, and the city now owns, leases or financially supports fifteen different shelters.

Hancock says the efforts are paying off. He says 76% of those who are homeless in Denver are in a shelter or transitional housing and, he says, the city has found permanent housing for almost 15,000 people since he took office.

Next week Arapahoe County and other Denver area communities will try to get a count of each homeless person in our area. It's called, "the point in time count."

The latest figures show a 55% increase in just two years in the City of Aurora alone.

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