Columnists, Denver, Local, Mike Rosen, Politics

Rosen: Getting a handle on Denver’s homeless dilemma

When John Hickenlooper took office in 2003 as mayor of Denver he promised, with good intentions, that his policies would solve the homeless problem in the city within 10 years.  That deadline has long since passed and it’s worse than ever.

Some problems don’t have absolute solutions, only mitigations at best.  A practical remedy for homelessness is confounded by conflicting premises, contradictory definitions and irreconcilable political differences.  Let’s start with a fundamental question on one particularly frustrating element of the problem:

“Do you agree that homeless people shouldn’t be allowed to set up makeshift shelters on public or private property without permission?”  If one’s answer to that is “no,” in the name of compassion or “social justice” we have an irreconcilable ideological difference that ignores the general public interest in property rights, health and safety, as well as the future of Denver as a desirable location for residents and businesses.  As Mayor Hancock once put it, “The moment we lose downtown as a place people want to go for entertainment, recreation or a place to live, we lose the heart of Denver.”

Homelessness is an expansive term with many complexities and distinctions.  Historically, about two-thirds of this group are already accommodated in transitional housing, are temporarily living with a friend or relative, or staying in a hotel or motel at public expense.  About one-fifth are in emergency shelters, and about five percent are in psychiatric hospitals, detox facilities, jails, or domestic violence and migrant shelters.

In addition to those temporarily out of work or down on their luck, the homeless include those with psychiatric disorders, substance abusers, hobos, young vagabonds on a fling and runaway kids.  In the 1970’s, groups like the ACLU won court battles to force the release of patients in mental institutions, even if they were unable to care for themselves.  For many, this turned out to be abandonment rather than liberation and now accounts for a large part of the most visible and intractable fraction of the chronically homeless.  That’s the “street people” who are estimated to be no more than five or ten percent of the homeless population.

Our compassionate society doesn’t want to let even self-destructive homeless people “die in the streets.”  Local and federal programs provide medical care and financial aid.  Homeless shelters in Denver do their part, but some of the homeless reject the rules and restrictions at those places and refuse to stay there, coveting their “independence” even if it kills them.  So what’s to be done?

Subsidized public housing programs seek to mitigate part of the problem but the left-wingers that dominate the Denver City Council — now even more radical than Boulder — have little resolve in permanently removing homeless squatters from their occupation of downtown.

This is a thorny dilemma that has civil rights laws clashing with economic and social realities.  Way back in 1999, I wrote a column proposing something I named a Community Assistance Center, funded with public and private contributions to serve as a halfway house, not a permanent residence.  It wouldn’t be a jail; residents would be free to come and go.  But it would enforce rules and discipline.  Room and board would be provided along with clothing.  It would have an infirmary, and drug and alcohol rehab programs.  Residents would be required to work at the CAC, performing maintenance, food service, janitorial and other duties.  Instruction, counseling and placement services would assist them in finding outside employment, and they’d pay a nominal fee from their wages for the facility during their stay.

I derived this concept from the model of Step Denver, with a demonstrable record of success since its founding in 1983.  Step Denver is a non-governmental residential program for men with no resources who seek recovery from substance abuse.  Step’s “Peer Recovery Support Model” consists of sobriety, work, accountability and community in a structured and disciplined environment that includes, treatment, education, skills classes and career counseling.

This kind of approach isn’t a panacea for homelessness but would be would be a lifeline for those who truly want to improve their lives and be productive members of society.  This wouldn’t be a remedy for the psychotic, stubbornly-addicted or anti-social fraction of street people who want a government handout and license to maintain their “independent” lifestyle at the expense of the rights of others.  Other than some kind of benign assisted-living institutionalization — if ACLU dogmatists were reasonable — I have no solution for those who insist on breaking the law and abusing the public.  But that shouldn’t stop us from reclaiming Denver’s parks, sidewalks and doorways.

Longtime KOA radio talk host and columnist for the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News Mike Rosen now writes for


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