Denver not tracking spending on homeless response, city auditor finds

Denver does such an insufficient job of tracking how much money it spends on enforcing its camping ban, cleaning up homeless encampments and conducting street outreach to unhoused people that the city auditor’s office says it had to do its own math.

Using numbers provided by 10 city agencies, Denver Auditor Tim O’Brien and his staff found that from the beginning of 2019 through June 2022, the city spent an estimated $13.65 million responding to encampments, including $8.18 million on outreach and $2.49 million to regularly clean up, or sweep, those settlements and move residents on to other places.

But O’Brien emphasized, as part of a report released Thursday by the Denver Auditor’s Office, that the estimate is likely well below actual spending because it doesn’t include figures from the Denver Police Department and most agencies did not provide a full 3½ years of expenses.

“Members of the community on every side of this issue have been asking for tracked expenses for a long time now,” O’Brien said in a news release. “Although defining encampment response expenses is complicated, it’s unacceptable that agencies are still not working toward a clear plan to address this.”

Greatly improving the tracking of money spent is just one leg of the recommendations in the auditor’s report on Denver’s response to homeless encampments. Other recommendations focused on making sure unhoused people had equitable access to belongings confiscated and stored after encampments are swept, analyzing staffing for encampment responses to make sure it’s sufficient to meet goals, and improving the city’s draft plan for its encampment response program to better lay out what is expected of each agency involved.

“I hope Denver’s next mayor — as well as both current and incoming city leaders — will see this as the roadmap for how to start tracking expenses and better serve our communities in the future,” O’Brien, himself fresh off an election win, said in Thursday’s news release.

The city agreed to implement all 36 recommendations laid out in the audit report, according to O’Brien’s office.

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In a response letter sent to the Auditor’s Office earlier this month, Matthew Wilmes, the city’s encampment response program executive, committed to steps including assessing if the storage facility the city uses for property confiscated during sweeps should be moved, among dozens of other changes.

Tracking spending was addressed in that letter.

“The Unauthorized Encampment Response Program will work alongside city agencies to identify which expenses should be included, the methodology, and calculations that need to be used when tracking encampment response expenses,” Wilmes’ letter reads.

The audit report comes a week after a study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association that found that regularly sweeping homeless encampments could lead to a nearly 25% increase in deaths for unhoused people who use injection drugs over a 10-year period in major cities including Denver.

Both Kelly Brough and Mike Johnston, the two candidates facing each other in the city’s mayoral runoff, have pledged to end unsanctioned camping in Denver by providing people living in encampments with sanctioned places to go with on-site services. But both have said they would enforce the city’s camping ban.

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