Chase Woodruff

(Colorado Newsline) On the sidewalk in front of the building where they hope to soon serve as the city’s top executive, candidates for Denver mayor on Monday heard directly from those most affected by the city’s homelessness crisis: unhoused people themselves.

Thirteen mayoral candidates in all participated in what organizers with advocacy group Mutual Aid Monday billed as a first-of-its-kind forum led by unhoused Denverites, featuring questions from more than a dozen people who are currently experiencing or have recently experienced homelessness on the city’s streets.

Once a week for the last two and a half years, volunteers with Mutual Aid Monday have distributed food, clothing and other essentials to unhoused people outside of the Denver City and County Building.

“We’re called Mutual Aid Monday for a reason: Monday is the night when city council meets here,” said member Jess Wiederholt. “We know that those who work inside of this building have the power to change things. But guess what? So do we.”

As the sun went down and temperatures dropped, the candidates for mayor huddled in their winter gear and spoke about issues ranging from Denver’s urban camping ban and practice of “sweeping” encampments to shelter policies and affordable housing.

Under incumbent Mayor Michael Hancock, who is term-limited after 12 years in office, Denver enacted a ban on unauthorized camping in 2012. But the number of people experiencing homelessness within city limits has only continued to grow, reaching nearly 4,800 in the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative’s 2022 survey.

The city’s enforcement of the camping ban, including through encampment sweeps, has been criticized as a haphazard strategy that simply moves unsheltered people from one place to another and does little to connect them to services.

“When you move people that way, we get disconnected from each other, and there’s no community,” Courtney, a person experiencing homelessness, told the candidates at Monday’s forum. “The only community we have, we have advocates that work for free. There’s these wonderful people that come and help us out with services … My question is, are you going to make sure there’s infrastructure set up where they’re hiring people that already know the folks in the community, that can reach them?”

A man named Travis, who is currently staying in a Denver shelter, said that many people in his situation aren’t able to stay employed because of curfew requirements.

“If the boss says, ‘You’ve got to stay late,’ we can’t do it, or we’ll be staying on the street,” he said. “Right now, I caught myself looking at my watch, knowing I have to get to the shelter.”

Karen, a U.S. Navy Veteran who said she suffers from chronic pain and health issues and currently lives in a shelter, said that most Denver residents are “very kind.”

“I think Denver is very open-minded, and I’d like leadership, especially the mayor, to reflect that,” she said. “My question is, as a candidate for mayor, are you fully engaged, to help all people — not just a certain wealthy segment of the Denver population?”

Among the race’s top five fundraisers, only Kelly Brough, the former head of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, was absent from the event. Appearing on her behalf was Denise Maes, former public policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, who said that Brough was spending time with her mother.

State Sen. Chris Hansen, a Democrat who represents Senate District 31 in central Denver in the Legislature, was greeted with boos from the assembled crowd as he delivered his opening statement. Hansen has faced criticism from advocates and fellow candidates for a TV ad that features footage of unhoused people of color, links homelessness to rising crime and promises to step up enforcement of the camping ban.

In general, however, the candidates were received warmly, as they laid out plans to improve the city’s homelessness services and increase the availability and affordability of permanent housing solutions.

“They’re saying the right things right now,” said Jerry Burton, an activist who has experienced homelessness and unsuccessfully sued the city to overturn the camping ban in 2019. “But who cannot be bought? Who is going to stand up?”

Aster Clarkson, an unhoused person who asked the candidates to consider the potential of magic mushrooms and other “psychedelic medicines” to treat substance use disorders and other mental health issues, offered a blunter assessment.

“I don’t think any of you are really worth a f***,” he told candidates. “I hope you all prove me wrong. We’re all human beings. And until we do something as people, together, things won’t change.”