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Migrant arrivals stretched Denver's budget. Now, the city is scaling back aid

Rosbely Sira Linarez holds her infant son in the north Denver encampment where they've been living with other South and Central American immigrants who arrived in Colorado in the last year. Apri 24, 2024.
Kevin J. Beaty
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Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Rosbely Sira Linarez holds her infant son in the north Denver encampment where they've been living with other South and Central American immigrants who arrived in Colorado in the last year. Apri 24, 2024.

DENVER — Denver is among the cities most impacted by the arrival of migrants crossing the Southwestern border in the last two years. More than 40,000 have arrived, many on buses chartered by the governor of Texas. Denver provided shelter for thousands and other forms of help. That's been expensive, and exhausting, and now the city has scaled its efforts back.

When Rosbely Sira Linarez, her husband and newborn arrived here last year from Venezuela they got help from the state to move into an apartment.

"They gave me a month's help plus the deposit," she said, in Spanish.

They found a place. That lasted about 10 months. Her husband lost a job, they fell behind on rent and then were evicted.

"I was there until they kicked me out," Linarez said.

Now they live in one of dozens of tents clustered under a north Denver street bridge, but not for too long. Police recently found this encampment and told residents they have to leave. Like Linarez, most here are newly arrived Venezuelan immigrants.

"Lately everything has become complicated for us," Linarez says.

Since 2023 more than 8,000 people in Denver received help with housing, through a state fund that's still available. But in March, the city started phasing out its short-term sheltering assistance. The problem for Linarez, and most migrants in Denver, is getting authorization to work so they can pay for their own housing.

An encampment in north Denver, populated by South and Central American immigrants who've arrived to Colorado in the last year. Apri 24, 2024.
Kevin J. Beaty / Denverite
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Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
An encampment in north Denver, populated by South and Central American immigrants who've arrived to Colorado in the last year, is seen on Apri 24.

"They still have that idea that they can make it."

"There's people who are going to be systemically homeless if we don't take care of them and get 'em on a path to employment," said Arthur Infante, a Denver artist who felt moved to help people in tents a few months ago.

"The ones who do have work authorization, they're making a go of it, man," Infante said. "They have that idea of the American Dream, and I mean it's even harder for us to attain that these days, but they still have that idea that they can make it."

Many migrants who landed in Denver took bus tickets the city's been offering to other cities for the last couple of years. Some, like Linarez, stuck around.

After Congress rejected a measure in February that would have sent money to help cities like Denver, Mayor Mike Johnston announced he had to cut $45 million from other departments to address the needs of people arriving.

"We've been in a kind of a back foot position really for the last 16 months," said Jon Ewing, a spokesperson for Denver Human Services.

"What we're trying to do now is build something that is sustainable," he said.

In March, Mayor Johnston said Denver needed scale back services for new arrivals. In April, he announced the city would house about 800 people for six months, as they wait for asylum applications to process and work authorization to come through – far less than the thousands of people once sheltered in city-run hotel rooms last winter.

"We'll be providing...workforce training. We're going to be providing them housing assistance," Ewing said.

People like Linarez, who already got a little help, but is now living under a bridge, don't qualify, and are on their own.

"I think we all know that we can't do everything for everyone. No city can," Ewing said.

In April, Denver started sending city staffers to Texas, to tell would-be travelers that there are now few resources available if they do decide to come here.

The kindness of strangers

But as official resources shrink, Denver-area residents continue pitching in to try to give people safe, and sustainable, places to live.

Hengerlyth Jimenez said, in Spanish, that her little family is just starting life here, made possible by the kindness of a stranger.

"I was like, well, I have this fully functional space where people could be living instead of under a bridge," said that stranger, Emilie Mitcham, who lives in a Denver suburb. She met Jimenez and another mother through a mutual aid group online and offered up her home.

Hengarlyth Jimenez (left to right) and her son, Alan, Neydira López and her daughter, Fabiola, and Mountain View Mayor Emilie Mitcham sit in front of Mitcham's duplex, which she's opened to the mothers as they pursue their own futures in Colorado. May 4, 2024.
Kevin J. Beaty / Denverite
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Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Hengarlyth Jimenez (from left) and her son, Alan, Neydira López and her daughter, Fabiola, and Mountain View Mayor Emilie Mitcham sit in front of Mitcham's duplex, which she's opened to the mothers as they pursue their own futures in Colorado, on May 4.

"One of the women was pregnant. And so, a pregnant woman with another small child out on the street in flip flops? Yeah, of course I'm going to help them if I can," Mitcham said.

The aid group says they've helped about 500 people find arrangements like this, and now, Denver residents can call 211 to sign up to be a host. Its a middle ground between a full lease that might be tricky to hang onto and a tent.

For Jimenez and other migrants, this may be the runway they need to make it in this expensive city.

"Poco difícil, pero, sí, se puede. Sí, se puede. Sí, se puede." It's difficult, Jimenez says, but its possible.

Copyright 2024 CPR News

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Kevin J. Beaty