Denver scrubbed $40 million migrant crisis plan. Now what?

The defeat of a $40 million proposal for private security corporation GardaWorld to take over migrant sheltering operations for Denver means the new mayor and City Council can pivot to an entirely different plan.

Mayor-elect Mike Johnston has not publicly announced what he plans to do next, and it’s unclear what his advisers will advocate. A representative from his team said he was unavailable for an interview last week. But Johnston has told The Denver Post that the issue is critical and complicated, and one in which he hopes to work “collaboratively to identify an equitable and fair solution to this crisis.”

Like his predecessor outgoing Mayor Michael Hancock, Johnston recognizes that the increasing number of migrants making their way to non-border towns like Denver is forcing local governments across the country to come up with strategies to help asylum-seekers without negatively impacting their residents. Hancock has said repeatedly that officials have to balance the desire to welcome newcomers with humanity and compassion, and figure out how to be fiscally responsible with taxpayer money because the current state of affairs is untenable.

After Johnston’s swearing-in ceremony, the new administration could decide to reopen the request for proposals to outsource the migrant response to one company, as Hancock’s administration first did in January.

Staff could decide to stick to the current responses and review options, including from GardaWorld. The Denver Post submitted a Colorado Open Records Act request for documents related to proposals, but the city’s Department of General Services denied the request, citing confidential commercial data.

Or, city officials could recreate the solicitation, scope and future plans – a tact nonprofit leaders involved in helping migrants are pushing, particularly as many of them pointed to GardaWorld’s troubling history and lack of experience in working with the vulnerable population.

​​“After July 17, a new administration and a partially new council will determine the direction sheltering newcomers will go,” Jennifer Piper, interfaith organizing director of the American Friends Service Committee in Denver, said. “We call on Mayor-elect Johnston to involve nonprofits and community groups in a process to evaluate and draw from all we have learned the last seven months and build a sustainable, dignity-focused system to welcome newcomers.

The new administration must also take bold, decisive action to create opportunities for affordable housing for all Denverites,” she said.

Large numbers of migrants and asylum-seekers, originally from Venezuela, began showing up to Denver unannounced in December. Many needed help getting to their next destinations; others wanted to work temporarily; and still others wanted to stay in Colorado. But they needed shelter, bus tickets, food and case management. The city jumped in, though Hancock repeatedly said resources were being stretched to a breaking point, as did nonprofit groups and volunteers.

That was the emergency response. Now, groups are calling for a more long-term solution and plan because the conditions in Venezuela do not seem to be getting better, and the federal government has yet to fix the United States’ broken immigration system or provide non-border cities with adequate funding.

Part of the solution moving forward for Johnston includes involving community members and nonprofits in forging a new strategy, according to his statement. One of Johnston’s 28 transition committees is the Migrants and Immigration Committee, which is collecting feedback from residents and nonprofit directors like Piper.

The co-chairs of the committee did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but members of the public will have an opportunity to be heard at a joint Human Rights and Community Partnerships and Migrants and Immigration public forum at 6 p.m. Tuesday, at the La Alma Rec Center, 1325 W. 11th Ave. in Denver. A virtual option is also available, and details can be found at

Piper hopes the new administration will be ready to lead on migrant response from day one.

“A delay will put the city in a difficult position financially and in terms of the stretch on services,” she said. “We are ready and willing to partner and believe a new adjusted (request for proposals) could be developed quickly if they convene us.”

Even though the City Council didn’t consider the GardaWorld contract on Monday, members still voted to allocate money into a dedicated fund for migrant response.

Denver City Council President Jamie Torres, who will remain on the new City Council after next week, saw too many issues with the request for proposals in January, so she hopes city staff will create a new one.

“It might have been the right one for the time, but I think a different frame has to be considered if this was problematic in its size and how we reframe it for what we need today,” Torres said.

The request was written for a period when the city thought it would have to shelter more than 2,000 people regularly and when those responding were overwhelmed, noted Piper.

“But now that we’ve been doing this for seven months … we have learned a lot about what sets people up for success in Denver – and I think a lot of us believe that doing sheltering should have a goal of integrating as many people as successfully as people because it’s good for them and good for the city,” Piper said.

The request for proposals was also written to alleviate some of the financial and staffing strain on city employees, particularly in the Department of Human Services, said spokesperson Victoria Aguilar. The level of work from city staff may have decreased since hundreds of people were arriving daily, but it has not been eliminated.

As of last week, 45 of the Department of Human Services’ employees and 100 of its on-call staff are dedicated to the migrant response, being diverted from other duties, Aguilar said.

One of the criticisms nonprofits in Denver have had about the earlier process is their leaders felt like they were left out of it until a company was selected, which Torres hopes will be rectified in the next round.

Another was about the scope – one company that’s not local taking on an effort to house 1,000 migrants in one place, not separating individuals from families, seemed to them, at best, ill-advised.

Torres and the nonprofit organizations working with the city have agreed that one organization cannot take on the effort alone, but they can – and have done so already – do it together.

What that looks like exactly remains to be seen, but Yoli Casas, the executive director of ViVe Wellness, said providing shelter for 100-200 per facility makes more sense and helps everyone get individualized case management and the help they need.

The groups also hope those sites can be spread out around the city with easy access to public transportation so they are not overwhelming to any single neighborhood, Piper added.

Although the majority of asylum-seekers coming from the southern border and landing in Denver don’t intend to stay in Denver permanently, some of them do, and Casas’ organization and Papagayo work to help them on their journeys. As of July 5, of 52 migrant arrivals, 28 planned to travel to other places, Casas said.

The nonprofits help those staying find temporary and then permanent housing, jobs, enroll their children in schools and connect them to various resources.

With a new administration taking over Denver city government, Casas wants Denver’s reputation as a welcoming city for everyone to continue. But she wants to see more collaboration with groups working with migrants and residents so they are better prepared for the next influx, rather than just responding to each emergency.

That includes a more dedicated funding stream to help with housing efforts and an overall strategy to help people integrate into their new communities.

“Everyone in the community agrees with the city that just continuing what we’re doing is not sustainable,” Piper said. But now, they have ideas for what works and what doesn’t, and she hopes Johnston’s new administration will take those into consideration.

Torres said Johnston’s creation of a transition committee for migrants and immigrants is a good sign, but she’s looking to see what else the committee will recommend doing.

“There’s so many ways to go when it comes to migration and immigration at the local level, and this is just one part of it, this reception of the migrant community,” she said.

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