Mayor Michael Hancock was all about the future as in “our children’s future….save our future….a future full of possibilities….our bright future” in his final State of the City address. If Denver’s future is anything like the present, the past would be an improvement. There was a time when Denver was a great place to open a business, fix up an old home, or take a stroll in the park. Today’s Denver resembles the Mile High City of the late ’80s, early ’90s back when Larimer Square was an island in a sea of high-crime urban blight and people stuck to the burbs.
I remember those days fondly. Thieves broke into my car. Someone stole a dead plant and a yellow macramé off my porch because it was the only thing not nailed down. The neighbors below me were small-time drug dealers. I’m not quite sure who left the bloody handprint on the wall in the stairwell. Men came and went from the vacant house next door, the one with the toilet in the yard and the boarded-up windows. Panhandlers were not terribly reserved about dropping trow to do their business in sight of others. Happily, random gunfire was more common in my friend’s neighborhood. After a guy pulled a knife on us, we were more cautious when strolling about at night. Good times.
I’m able to relive these charming memories of Denver today while driving past dirty tents, piles of trash, stoned beggars, boarded-up windows scrawled with graffiti, a meth-addled vagrant without pants and quite hairy. Can’t unremember that. Drive-by shootings have returned. Civic Center Park was closed last year so the city could clean up the trash, rat burrows, human waste, and needles left by urban squatters. The year prior, rioters cost the city over $5 million to repair the damage they wrought downtown.
More crimes were reported in Denver in 2020 than in the early ’90s. There were more homicides reported in 2020 than in the past three decades. All types of crime have been on the rise since 2008. Currently, the city of my birth is number one in car theft.
It’s not all the mayor’s fault. Who knew making marijuana a celebrated institution would draw drug users and encourage heavy consumption? Who knew letting offenders out of jail on cheap personal recognizance bonds would give them a chance to reoffend? Who knew that giving vagrants free food, free lodging, free cash, and free needles with no expectation of sobriety or work might be enabling?
Who knew replacing the successful Broken Windows city management philosophy with a soft-on-crime, tough-on-police approach would increase lawlessness? The Broken Windows approach recognizes the role of disorder and crime in begetting more of the same. During his administration, Mayor John Hickenlooper hired criminologist George Kelling, who along with academic James Q. Wilson pioneered the Broken Windows theory, to advise the Denver Police Department. The city successfully reduced incidences of vandalism, loitering, public drunkenness and drug use, and urban squatting as well as more serious crimes.
Without the mandate to maintain order, crime surged back with a vengeance. In his speech, Hancock touted the $240 million the city spends annually on homelessness. No doubt some of the money is well spent. Helping working low-income families find stable housing in an expensive city is a worthy goal, but high rent isn’t the main issue facing the stoned man sans pants or the other tent dwellers who aren’t interested in sobriety or work.
Some of the city’s programming is counterproductive. Before Hancock brags much more about the Denver Basic Income Project which gives recipients $1,000 a month in cash, he should read a new study by Harvard researchers that found this kind of program harms low-income recipients. In the randomized study, some recipients received unconditional cash handouts and others did not. Those who received the cash reported that they earned less money, had more financial stress, lower health outcomes, more anxiety, and lower work satisfaction and performance than those who did not. In other words, helping didn’t help, it hurt.
Doing no more harm might be a good goal for Hancock’s final year in office.
Krista L. Kafer is a weekly Denver Post columnist. Follow her on Twitter: @kristakafer
To send a letter to the editor about this article, submit online or check out our guidelines for how to submit by email or mail.