Denver Homeless Housing Efforts Challenged by Migrant Crisis

Denver homelessness and immigration

Like many cities across the western United States, Denver has implemented aggressive goals to address its homelessness crisis. But those efforts have been hampered by a steady stream of migrants, which has put city leadership in awkward positions.

In some instances, officials have moved people experiencing homelessness out of hotels in both Aurora and Denver to provide shelter for migrants. There have also been times when migrant families with children were forced to leave shelters and sleep on the streets because of Denver’s temporary sheltering policies.

These issues have increased tensions between Denver Mayor Mike Johnston’s administration and the community. They illustrate how challenging it can be to provide enough shelter for people in need without a coordinated plan.

“It’s still being treated with panic and reaction,” Denver City Council President Jamie Torres told NPR.

Johnston campaigned on a promise to house more than 1,000 people experiencing homelessness before the end of 2023. To that end, Johnston’s first budget allocated hundreds of millions of dollars to make the promise come true.

Denver has also acquired multiple hotels to serve as temporary shelter for homeless folks and migrants alike and chipped in more than $17 million of funding to help build a new five-story shelter to be operated by the local Volunteers of America branch.

But those efforts have grown more complex as more than 31,000 people have migrated from Central and South America over the last year, according to city data. 

Denver has already spent more than $35 million to provide services and shelter for the migrants as well, but the efforts have produced mixed results.

In early December, local news station 9News reported that Denver leased rooms at a Quality Inn in Aurora to house 400 migrant families. But Aurora officials said they were never informed of the plan.

Homeless people who had received emergency housing vouchers to stay at the hotel also said they were caught off guard and were asked to move out to make room for the migrant families. 

“The housing cost is so high it’s hard for us to find a place to live because it’s so expensive,” Joe Sauceda, who had been staying at the Quality Inn for nearly a year, told 9NEWS. “Our family, we’ve been sleeping in the car for a couple of days.”

The same issue has occurred in Denver as well.

In October, the city began renovating the Sand & Sage Motel and the Westerner Motel to turn the properties into a temporary shelter. Both properties were housing migrants at the time the renovations began. Some families were forced to sleep on the streets after the construction began.

The circumstances are also taking a toll on city staff.

“We’ve been doing it for a year, and we’re tired,” Jon Ewing, spokesperson for the Denver Mass Care Department Operations Center, told Westword. “We’re trying to provide what we can with what we have. We have limited funding. We have limited resources, but we’ve been going for a year now. It’s not required, but they’re coming here. They’re asking for help. Texas is busing them here, and we’ve tried to treat them like human beings.”

Some city officials say Denver needs to start treating both crises like long-term ones. New busloads of migrants are arriving in Denver almost daily. Meanwhile, the city’s expensive housing market continues to threaten the ability of low-income earning households to stay housed.

Some fear the city will lose grip on both issues without a coordinated plan.

“They’ve got to get organized,” Torres said. “I think there are some within the administration who have been trying to do that.”

How You Can Help

Now is not the time to be silent about homelessness in Colorado or anywhere else. Unhoused people deserve safe and sanitary housing just as much as those who can afford rent or mortgage.

Poverty and homelessness are both policy choices, not personal failures. That’s why we need you to contact your officials and tell them you support legislation that:

  • Streamlines the development of affordable housing
  • Reduces barriers for people experiencing homelessness to enter permanent housing
  • Bolsters government response to homelessness

Together, we can end homelessness.

Robert Davis

Robert Davis

Robert is a freelance journalist based in Colorado who covers housing, police, and local government.

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