A strategy Denver applied to crime, mayor proposes ‘hot spot’ approach to behavioral health

Alex Edwards / Denver Gazette

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock wants to apply a strategy aimed at reducing crime in “hot spots” to the city’s behavioral health challenges, arguing that focusing resources on areas in Denver – he specifically noted downtown – experiencing higher prevalence of drug overdose and violence is a smart approach.      

The program is part of Denver’s most ambitious budget proposal to date – a record $3.75 billion spending plan that earmarks nearly $45 million for mental health services, staff and treatment facilities.

The budget allocates $700,000 for a new public “health hot spot” program.

Hancock’s office said it is modeled after the city’s “successful, data-driven public safety hot spot work.”

“This effort will concentrate resources in areas of our community experiencing higher public health harms such as drug overdoses, encampments and violence,” his office said in a news release, adding that, coupled with additional resources, “these investments will allow us to take a more pro-active approach to help people who are in crisis on our streets, particularly in and around downtown.”   

Hancock’s budget proposal unveiled earlier this week includes $36.5 million in federal pandemic relief money to expand the city’s existing mental health programs and $8 million from the national opioid settlement to pay service providers and increase capacity at treatment facilities. 

“My 2023 budget proposal prioritizes investments in community health and safety support and other resources specifically tailored to our most vulnerable populations,” Hancock said in his budget memo. 

Of the $36.5 million in pandemic relief money, Hancock said he wants to allocate $20 million to expand the city’s behavioral health provider network, and “cover behavioral health services for people living with HIV, particularly people of color.”

Partnership to target hotspots

Hancock’s behavioral health “hot spot” program would see nearly $650,000 invested in the following areas: 

  • $155,600 to create two outreach coordinator positions
  • $44,300 to increase service supplies to support added positions
  • $45,000 for the one-time purchase of a vehicle to support outreach
  • $255,700 to create three therapist positions
  • $142,100 to add two emergency medical technicians.

Additionally, Hancock seeks to pair the pilot program with $180,000 investment for a new fire department emergency medical unit and $900,000 to fund a complex-case outreach team. He said his goal in doing this is “to ensure that those in crisis are met with a public health, rather than a police response.” 

Hancock’s proposed budget also targets Colorado’s youth after noting a rapid increase in adolescents reporting “poor” mental health.

The 2021 State of Mental Health in America Report ranked Colorado No. 42 – among the worst end of the spectrum – on prevalence of mental illness and access to care for young people. Preliminary data from the 2022 report shows youth mental health levels rebounding, and the state ranks 13th overall. But Colorado ranks dead last in mental health for adults, according to the report, which looked at adults with mental illness who are uninsured and those cognitive disabilities but could not a doctor because of the cost of care. 

In order to keep Denver’s young people on the right track, Hancock asked $1.6 million for youth mental services and $1.5 million for out of school time programming. He also earmarked $6 million to increase food security and access.

Last year, Denver Public Schools served more than 100,000 meals as part of the Tasty Food Program, a drop from 2020 levels that school officials said was due to the lingering effects the COVID-19 Pandemic. Food and meals are distributed through the Summer Foods Service Program and the At-Risk After School Meals Program. 

“These programs work towards the goal of increasing student engagement, as well as reducing childhood hunger and obesity for Denver’s children and youth,” Hancock’s budget memo says.

According to the the city’s Office of Children’s Affairs, $5.1 million was appropriated last year for activities, such as health initiatives, youth development and after school programs.

Hancock is requesting this total budget increase by a little more than half-a-million dollars. These changes include: 

  • $2.1 million for after school and summer programs (a $7,070 increase)
  • $1.2 million for youth violence prevention (a $41,322 increase)
  • $316,665 for health initiatives (a $99,665 increase)
  • $322,579 for youth development (a $91,317 increase).

Caring for Denver Fund

The budget also provides for The Caring for Denver Fund under the Caring for Denver Foundation.

Started via a voter approved ballot measure in 2018, the Caring for Denver Foundation, which falls under the city’s Department of Public Health and Environment, seeks to grow “community-informed solutions, dismantling stigma, and turning the community’s desire to help into action” as strategies to tackle mental health and substance abuse.   

Funded by city sales tax revenue, the organization received $46.4 million for this year. Hancock’s recommends increasing its funding by 6.9% to a total of $49.5 million. 

All told, Hancock is requesting to reduce the health department’s spending by about 1.23%. His proposal includes: 

  • $741,619 in behavioral health spending (a 12.25% decrease)
  • $778,965 in health promotion spending (a 19.5% increase)
  • $598,168 in public health and wellness spending (no change)
  • 2.4 million in support team assistance response spending (a 43.8% decrease). 

Additionally, the mayor’s budget seeks to continue providing $67,300 in mental health awareness training, a grant that was in place last year. 

The city council is set to review the mayor’s proposal several times, with hearings streamed live and scheduled for Sept. 23 and 26-30. The city council will conduct working sessions on Oct. 6 and 7, and by Oct. 11, councilmembers expect to send the amended budget back to the mayor, and on Oct. 24, members of the public will have the opportunity to comment on the proposal.

The council will vote on Hancock’s budget on Nov. 7.