Denver Homeless Vote Illustrates Major Hickenlooper Failure

Later claimed '10 Year Plan to End Homelessness' title was 'marketing effort'

John Hickenlooper / Getty Images
May 7, 2019

An upcoming vote by Denver residents on homelessness issues is a fresh illustration of one of the key policy failures of John Hickenlooper spanning his tenure as both Denver mayor and Colorado governor, during which he vigorously advocated and promoted a "10 year plan to end homelessness."

The ballot issue to be decided Tuesday is described by supporters as "the right to survive measure" and would repeal the city's urban camping ban, thereby allowing homeless persons the right to sleep or camp on any public grounds. In recent years, the city has conducted numerous "homeless sweeps" of encampments on sidewalks and in public parks.

During his first term as Denver mayor in 2005, Hickenlooper rolled out a "10 year plan to end homelessness."

When, ten years later in 2015 it was clear homelessness in Denver had not been eliminated, he told Colorado Public Radio the plan's title was never literal.

"No one is more disappointed than I am—or all the other mayors, right?" Hickenlooper said to CPR. "There were 280 cities across the United States that committed to 10-year plans to end homelessness—and we always knew that we weren't going to end homelessness. Right? That's a marketing effort to get everyone's attention to say, 'Alright, Let's really work on this.'"

Vincent Carroll, a long time reporter and editorial writer in Colorado and Denver Press Club Hall of Fame member, disagrees with that version of events.

"The 10-year-plan to end homelessness was not merely a marketing ploy," Carroll told the Washington Free Beacon by email. "Those who crafted and promoted the plan were entirely serious in their belief that they had the policy keys to eliminate homelessness. They were terribly naive, as some of us sensed at the time."

About the same time Hickenlooper was making the "marketing effort" remarks, the city's auditor was releasing a scathing audit of "Denver's Road Home" (DRH), the agency responsible for the plan:

The audit found that DRH has not taken advantage of important resources to reduce homelessness in Denver. First, DRH has not consistently gathered data from service providers it funds, nor has it analyzed this information to demonstrate whether progress towards ending homelessness has been made. In fact, only in year ten of Denver’s Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness has DRH begun to focus on analyzing the data it receives. In addition, DRH has not structured or managed the Commission so that this advisory group can help the City’ policymakers develop solutions to homelessness in Denver.

Following the audit, DRH officials announced a new effort.

"We're probably looking at a three- to five-year plan," a representative with Denver's Road Home told CPR after the 2015 audit. "There are those who want us to shy away from that aspirational goal [of ending homelessness in 10 years]. We'll continue to work toward ending homeless. We may not be as emphatic in this plan, and the like, but it will continue to be a rallying cry and an aspirational goal that we like to move toward."

Nevertheless, this past April the city auditor's office released a new report on homeless efforts now in the hands of a new mayor and found that the effort lacked a "cohesive overall strategy."

Hickenlooper's challenger in the reelection year of 2014, former congressman Bob Beauprez, tried to make the plan an issue in the campaign.

"The governor said he'd end homelessness in Denver by 2015," Beauprez said in a debate. "The clock is ticking. Homelessness is actually up."

"Hickenlooper refuted the claim, saying chronic homelessness in Denver was down 75 percent," a report from KKTV noted.

But about three weeks after the election, the investigative reporting unit for local TV station KUSA found that nine years into the 10-year plan, "there are more homeless now than there were before the program."

"I keep looking for John Hickenlooper to tout his successful plan to end homelessness in Denver in his presidential campaign and it just hasn't happened yet; I'm perplexed," Dick Wadhams, political consultant and former chairman of the state Republican party said during in a phone interview with the Beacon.

Hickenlooper blamed the plan's lack of success in part on the recession that began in 2008, a move Wadhams criticized.

"Governor Hickenlooper cannot hide behind a recession to claim why his homeless initiatives failed," he added. "The bottom line is we've now been in a period of great growth and Colorado is one of the most economically dynamic states in the country, and yet homelessness is dramatically increasing."

"Whatever he did as mayor and governor obviously failed," he concluded.

As for the Tuesday vote, several leaders in the homeless community have voiced their opposition to the "right to survive" measure, and recent polling has shown strong public disapproval, by a nearly 2-to-1 margin.

Requests for comment to the Hickenlooper campaign and leadership PAC were not returned.