November 7, 2016

Revamping Homelessness Assistance in Denver

Denver government building

Glendean L. Hamilton, a student at Harvard Kennedy School and recipient of an Ash Center Summer Fellowship in Innovation, spent last summer in the Office of the Mayor in the City and County of Denver. In this reflection on her experience there, she describes how Denver and other cities are using data to advance their efforts to end homelessness.

The headlines are clear: The Denver metro area is experiencing unprecedented growth as millennials and businesses relocate to the mountain state. Regional economic analysis conducted by the Metro Denver Economic Corporation indicates a year-to-date unemployment rate of just 3.3 percent — a number that sits well below the national average. Additionally, 24 companies relocated or expanded their headquarters to the downtown Denver area between May 2015 and May 2016, the median selling price for single-family homes has risen 10 percent over the last year, and the city’s population grew 10.6 percent between 2010 and 2014, with more growth forecasted. As an Ash Center Summer Fellow in the Office of the Mayor in the City and County of Denver, on my morning walks to work I could observe construction cranes hanging overhead while homeless men and women slept on the streets below.

During my fellowship, one of my primary responsibilities was to design a strategy framework detailing actions the Mayor’s Office and other relevant agencies should take to better coordinate and evaluate the support services and housing available to individuals experiencing or at risk of homelessness. Reducing and eventually eliminating homelessness remain a top priority for the city because leaders recognize that a risk associated with the region’s current economic boom is that members of vulnerable populations can be displaced and left behind.

The challenges facing Denver are not unique. Therefore, as many cities consider steps to ensure equitable development, this reflection serves to highlight ways Denver and other growing municipalities are mitigating the adverse effects associated with economic growth. By harnessing the power of data and implementing creative public policy solutions, communities are providing better services and opportunities to homeless and low-income individuals.


Since the early 2000s, more than 270 local governments and communities designed plans to end homelessness, especially among the chronically homeless and veteran subgroups. Denver created its own 10-year plan to end homelessness by 2015. The plan featured eight goals, three of which were to increase development of permanent and transitional housing, education and training programs, and to reform the shelter system. Ultimately, the Denver, like many other cities, did not accomplish its goal of ending homelessness.

Determined to improve upon its previous efforts, Denver is actively exploring ways to combat homelessness with the power of data. Leaders are not satisfied with paying for the delivery of services and temporary forms of housing, and then hoping for the best. By tracking on a monthly basis how well the system is connecting homeless individuals to permanent supportive housing, increasing their income, and keeping them from returning to homelessness, Denver will be able to quickly notice and correct for areas of underperformance. When the system performance framework I developed in my fellowship is implemented, this will have life-changing implications for individuals struggling to navigate and exit the system, as well as those who may become at-risk of homelessness in the future.  

The City and County of Denver is already thriving from the use of performance data. Their nationally renowned Peak Academy empowers city employees to be change agents by identifying and eliminating non-value add functions in business processes. The innovations produced by city employees have already saved the government an estimated $15 million and increased customer satisfaction in typically unpleasant places like the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Excise and Licensing Office.

In February 2016, the city launched its first social impact bond to address chronic homelessness. With the bond currently in implementation phase, the city is working with national providers and evaluators to track reduction in jail bed days and improvements in housing stability for the initiative’s 250 participants. The city recognized the need for this project after analyzing criminal justice, health, and shelter data about utilization practices and the cost burden placed on the city.

Across the country, there are numerous other growing cities making data a priority when determining where, when, and how to deliver services to homeless individuals. Los Angeles County is one of the many communities using coordinated assessment tools. Coordinated assessment allows outreach workers to determine an individual’s level of need and connect them with tailored resources.

Critics may question whether coordinated assessment tools can be truly effective and appropriately address the array of needs homeless individuals have. The field recognizes that homeless individuals are not a homogenous population and that they end up homeless due to a myriad of complexities not solely limited to income insecurity. Nevertheless, a key benefit of coordinated assessment tools is that they help homeless outreach workers direct their clients toward help. While they may not perfectly account for each individual scenario, coordinated assessment tools aid in preventing individuals from sleeping on the street or in jails because they offer guideposts in an overly complex system.

Denver currently uses a similar coordinated assessment tool. During my tenure with the city, I proposed a plan that would build on this current system: the creation of Rapid Access Points, or “one-stop” centers for homelessness services. These Rapid Access Points would evaluate the need of individuals using a coordinated entry tool and provide case management with essential follow-up services to direct individuals to helpful avenues intended to shorten their time on the streets. Further discussions must take place before these access points are made available to the public. Nevertheless, there is already buzz within the Mayor’s Office and from the mayor himself about making these access points cornerstones of the city’s efforts to mitigate homelessness.

These access points will not serve as panaceas to homelessness. Instead, they are a support structure that will give homeless services a front door. This will help the city improve the data it has on who needs help through increase interactions with families in need.

The views expressed in the Government Innovators Network blog are those of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, the John F. Kennedy School of Government, or of Harvard University.

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