By Robert Davis
Denver is exploring ways of getting homeless individuals off of the streets and in touch with essential services by creating new zoning ordinances for tiny home villages.
The current zoning code allows for singular tiny homes, but has no rules about tiny home communities. Instead, City Council is looking to create an entirely new zoning classification called Relocatable Sleeping Units, or RX for short. The new classification would allow tiny home villages to reside on public use facilities like churches, libraries, and schools.
“Denver has invested a lot in solving our homeless crisis,” Councilwoman Robin Kneich said. “But, our efforts are currently falling short of our needs.”
In order to make the city’s efforts meet its needs, City Council enlisted the help of the Office of Economic Development, Denver’s Road Home, and Community Planning and Development to create the rules regulating tiny home villages. Councilwoman Debbie Ortega is looking for ways to include homeless shelters and sober-living facilities into the plans as well.
The idea has been in the works for about a year and a half, and is modeled after a pilot village located in Globeville, known as the Beloved Community Village, which is operated by non-profit housing organization The Colorado Village Collaborative.
Currently, City Council is exploring having public use facilities host the tiny home villages on two-year and four-year leases. Only two-year leases would be renewable, but would not be allowed to utilize public utilities like plumbing. Those on four-year leases can use public utilities, though both lease terms require the villages to fund their own waste services. Residents would need to vacate the premises after their lease term has expired.
There is also no definitive size of these communities, though the initial plans require villages to be set 20 feet back from a road and allow for 10 feet between each unit. Each unit in the villages would only be able to safely accommodate two individuals, so families would not be able to utilize the village. However, every village would be accessible to case workers trying to get residents in touch with services they need to transition out of homelessness.
“One thing we always consider is how to build a place where our villagers can lead a full and productive life,” said Nathan Davis Hunt, program director of economic justice for The Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, a grassroots social justice advocacy group.
Finding A Path
To some, this is a step in the right direction for Denver’s Road Home and Denver’s homeless services in general. In April, city auditor Timothy O’Brien, determined that the city’s approach to homelessness is fragmented and lacks strategy. O’Brien and his team authored a scathing report detailing ways in which the city’s attempts to address its homelessness problem is falling short of its goals.
“Gaps exist in Denver’s Road Home’s collaborative efforts and staff resources that impede, among other things, the division’s ability to address homelessness,” the report reads.
According to the 2018 Point in Time count, there are nearly 3,500 homeless individuals in the City and County of Denver. That year, Road Home collaborated with Denver Day Works, a city-run employment agency, to connect150 individuals to permanent work and housed another 37 individuals, accounting for a little over five percent of homeless individuals.
Even though Road Home’s budget increased by over $5 million between 2018 and 2019, the auditor’s report also found that its parent organization, Denver Human Services, still lacks basic processes to connect homeless individuals with essential services. This is primarily because, even though the organization’s operating budget expanded by $3 million between 2014 and 2018, the staff shrunk from nine employees to six full-time employees and one part-time intern.
Some of the improvements suggested by the auditor include hiring a dedicated data analyst, streamline day-to-day operations so the few Road Home employees can manage their time better, and focus more efforts on strategic planning and policy rather than doing program outreach.
“Although one Road Home employee worked with Human Services officials to better incorporate homelessness-related elements into the agency’s overall strategic plan, the newly issued strategic framework for Human Services does not include specific priorities related to homelessness. Therefore, Road Home is still without a guiding strategy and associated policies to guide its work,” the report reads. ■