Newly inaugurated Denver Mayor Michael Johnston ran as a left-center moderate in a city whose electorate is heavily progressive — which is the fundamental cause of Denver’s decline. Most of his campaign promises will require the blessings of Denver’s City Council, whose progressive majority is very much to the left of Johnston’s image and slickly worded campaign platform. The council will be a challenging obstacle for the new mayor, just as it was for Mayor Hancock before him.
One glimmer of hope is the decisive victory of Darrell Watson over incumbent city councilwoman Candi CdeBaca in Council District 9. Watson, a political newcomer, presented himself as sensible moderate who’s replacing a radical, self-described communist firebrand, Denver’s version of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York City. Perhaps some Denver voters are finally coming to their senses?
Johnston promised he’d govern “representing all of the people.” This is a standard cliché of partisan politicians of all stripes. Of course, he’s technically representing all the people of Denver — since he’s the only mayor. But that doesn’t mean he’s representing the public policy preferences of every Denverite (including Republicans who are largely disenfranchised in this one-party town.) Most Denver voters are well left of center on many issues like illegal migrants, criminal justice, gun control, public education, taxes, cultural issues, homelessness, affordable housing, rent control, radical greenness, wokeness, etc. To reverse Denver’s decline, Johnston would have to stand up to Denver’s radical progressives and their political agenda. He was endorsed by Rep. Leslie Herod who’s as far left and woke as one can go in the state legislature. She’s term limited in 2024 and looking for a job, it won’t be a good omen if he adds her to his staff. Nor is it encouraging that he’s working with unions to create a new cabinet-level position of “labor liaison” in his administration.
When asked during the campaign if he’s in favor of Denver police serving as resource officers in public schools, he dodged the question saying he’d “leave that up to the staff of individual schools, students and parents.” Also, not a good sign.
Johnston says he’ll end homelessness by the end of his first term. That’s awfully ambitious. Twenty years ago, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper promised to end homelessness in 10 years. As we’ve seen, it’s only gotten worse. In a campaign mailer, Johnston touted his plan to provide centralized services in micro communities for the homeless, offering residents mental health care, addiction treatment, and job training. But he conveniently failed to address the thorniest part of the problem: how he’d deal with “street people,” a very small fraction of the city’s homeless who’ve had an inordinately damaging impact on Denver’s quality of life.
Homelessness is a very expansive term. The great majority already live in government-provided congregate shelters, hotels, motels, transitional housing, and facilities provided by private charities. Johnston’s plan may be effective with those who are only temporarily down on their luck and others who willingly seek treatment or job training. Non-government organizations like Step Denver, locally, and the Lucky Duck Foundation in San Diego have had success with such comprehensive rehab programs.
A much smaller share are “unsheltered,” defined as “lacking a primary nighttime residence that’s not a public or private place designed for regular sleeping accommodation.” Within that group are what were once called — in the pre-euphemism age — vagrants, vagabonds, drifters, or hobos who don’t want a regular job or family life and choose this lifestyle in the name of freedom and independence.
The aforementioned street people are a very small fraction of the homeless. These are unfortunate souls plagued with drug addiction, alcoholism and mental illness. They don’t fit into Johnston’s stated plan because they refuse assistance for their problems and don’t want to be constrained by rules. We can pity them and provide some assistance, but their presence endangers public health and safety, obstructs public access, undermines neighborhoods, burdens hospitals, ERs, policing, Denver’s budget, and makes the city increasingly unpleasant for residents, businesses, tourists and suburbanites who used to recreate here. The damage this does to Denver’s economy leaves the city with even less money to help those in need.
Politicians tread lightly around this dilemma not wanting to appear uncompassionate. States with so-called “Kendra’s Laws” allow involuntary institutionalization and treatment of people with mental conditions that make them a danger to themselves and others. Enforcing this is difficult in the face of ACLU activism and progressive judges. But there may not be a practical alternative.
The decay of Denver and, even worse, cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Portland is a model of what not to do about street people.
Longtime KOA radio talk host and columnist for the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News Mike Rosen now writes for CompleteColorado.com.
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