Denver’s homeless spending double cost of an apartment, report says

Denver’s annual per-capita spending on the unhoused is at least twice as high as the cost of rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the city, a new report finds.

Researchers at the University of Colorado Denver and the business-oriented, “free-enterprise” advocacy group Common Sense Institute said Thursday that Denver spends between $42,000 and $104,000 each year per person experiencing homelessness. That total includes city government spending and spending on homelessness by charitable groups and Denver Health.

Rental housing groups estimate the average annual rent for a one-bedroom unit is about $20,000.

The release of this report comes one day after Denver released its five-year plan to address homelessness. Mike Strott, a spokesman for Mayor Michael Hancock, said the city doesn’t track spending for the unhoused on a per-capita basis.

The researchers said Denver’s spending range is wide because attempts to count the unhoused population in the city and metro area are imperfect and, by the admission of those who conduct the counts, incapable of capturing the full scope of homelessness in the region.

Across the Denver metro, per-capita spending on people experiencing homelessness ranged from $32,000 to $79,000 a year, the report estimates.

The researchers argued it’s an inefficient use of money, considering per-pupil spending in Denver Public Schools was about $19,000 in 2019.

“We can get more results and definitely have a bigger impact than we are,” said Mike Zoellner, chairman of the Downtown Denver Partnership and former finance chairman of the Together Denver campaign, which in 2019 fought against efforts to decriminalize homelessness with the unsuccessful Initiative 300.

Report co-author Brenda Dickhoner, formerly with the Colorado Department of Education, said that she believes the total amount of spending on the unhoused is undercounted in the study, because municipal agencies and contributions from charitable organizations are difficult to track and categorize.

Dickhoner also said that the research intends to focus only on direct services to the unhoused, meaning that the per-person spending estimates do not take into account other government spending on unhoused people, like police, fire and parks.

She said she and her co-author did not investigate how much more city governments in the Denver area spend on unhoused people as compared to those with stable housing.

In a letter accompanying the five-year plan just released, Hancock spoke to the importance of housing stability. His administration in recent weeks has defended this year’s increase in homeless encampment sweeps.

“The aim of all these steps and our entire strategy is to help as many of our unhoused residents as possible to enter housing — and to stay housed,” Hancock wrote. “When homelessness occurs, we should do everything in our power — as a society, not just as a government — to make it brief and one-time.”

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