Last week, the city of Denver swept away problem of chronic homelessness by removing hundreds of homeless people from makeshift encampments throughout the city. The City claims that their decision was made because of the public safety issues these encampments create for the homeless residents themselves and the public at large. They are absolutely correct. What the City is not prepared to address in any meaningful way is exactly where it is they would like these people to go. The shelter directors have stated that there is not enough affordable housing or enough emergency shelter to meet the growing demand. As a consequence, these people default to living on the streets as a last resort. I have for the past month spent a few weeks living on the street, trust me when I say that nobody is living outside because they want to.
Rather than develop thoughtful and compassionate measures to address this crisis, the City answered with an arsenal of garbage trucks and police officers. Denver, we can and must do better. The City claims they are storing people’s belongings and they can access them. That is an outright fabrication. Try finding your personal belongings in a sea of garbage bins. Hundreds of people have lost all of their personal belongings (including photos of their children). The problem has temporarily disappeared from public sight but the fact remains, people have to exist somewhere. It is our responsibility as a city to find adequate places for people to be other than the streets.
If we can build a world class light rail and airport hotel for visitors, shouldn’t we be able to provide adequate and compassionate shelter for our most disenfranchised residents. We are urging city Denver residents, city officials, nonprofit leaders, foundation leaders, advocates and homeless residents themselves to come together to recognize that this crisis must be addressed right now in a more constructive and compassionate manner.
We hope we can join in a concerted effort to develop the resources, plan and collaborative spirit necessary to protect the basic safety and dignity of every Denver citizen. Everyone in our city deserves to be somewhere safe to sleep tonight.
PJ D’Amico, Executive Director
The Buck Foundation
Whether people can afford bus and light rail fares is one of the most fundamental issues to whether a transit system really serves its public. If I were being really honest (and I am), I would share that it took Mile High Connects a couple of years to understand this really basic issue. We started our collaborative with great ideas about getting more affordable housing near transit, connecting local workers to jobs in transit areas and making sure that services like health and education were easy to get to through light rail. And then, after hundreds of conversations with community members, we finally got it – if people can’t afford to even get on the bus or the light rail, it doesn’t matter if that health clinic is located near a transit stop or that they live in housing right next to a station.
At the beginning of 2014, we began exploring what it would look like to work more intentionally on affordability of bus and light rail fares. RTD was getting ready to undertake a study of its fare structure, fare cost and pass programs, so it seemed like a great time to begin to work with them on how we could address the challenge of affordability.
Our effort began small – 10 organizations around a table describing the ways that affordability of fares impacted their constituents. Over the course of the year, as that group became 40, then 70, then 120 with participants from every sector – nonprofit, business, government, philanthropy – we realized just how hungry people were to talk about something they see every day in a meaningful, solution-oriented way.
Throughout the year, we worked closely with staff at RTD, co-hosting three targeted focus groups for nonprofits, participating their Local Government Stakeholders convenings, attending all eleven of the public input sessions on the Fare Study and meeting whenever possible with staff on the issue. We applauded RTD for opening up the process to public input, came to them with specific ideas we were working on to get at the affordability question and encouraged them to work with our growing coalition even more deeply to delve into solutions in a way that was generative, creative and helped to address community need.
Because of this, I have to admit that I was surprised at last week’s update to the RTD Board Operations and Customer Service Committee on the Fare Study. A board member asked specifically whether any ideas had been generated by those in the community interested in affordability and staff responded “no”. Staff also shared that the opportunity for feedback would be limited to a formal public hearing model for the next phase of the study.
In reality, there are any number of very specific ideas being explored, tested, talked through and pondered. Ranging from ways that you could make an income-based pass and fare system work to changes to the Business and Neighborhood EcoPass Programs to enhancements to the Nonprofit Agency Reduced Fare Program, a large group of interested and informed stakeholders from every sector are thoughtfully working to figure out how to tackle this complex, critical issue. We continue to invite RTD staff to engage with us, to think with us, to explore with us and to continue on the path they were walking down throughout the course of last year to meaningfully engage community in their process. Productive dialogue is important for the best solutions to emerge. We encourage and look forward to continued, deepening and expanding opportunities for partnership for the benefit of the community at large.