Clinton confab ends with pledges to solve Denver's persistent problems (Denver Post)

By Kristen Leigh Painter and Jon Murray

On the final day of the Clinton Global Initiative America conference, which aspires to address big-picture socioeconomic challenges, participants explored ways to make doing good, good for business.

They also took a stab at persistent problems that have plagued cities, including Denver, in ways that merge seemingly incongruous thought streams.

The conference's cornerstone is a series of "commitments" made by nonprofits, businesses and government, and Wednesday included two big ones that will play out in Denver.

The city of Denver announced an $8 million program aimed at helping Denver's chronically homeless by providing supportive housing. And CH2M Hill, a global engineering giant, pledged $100,000 to Denver School of Science and Technology Public Schools to provide mentorships, internships and on-site experience to encourage students to pursue science and technology fields in college.

"We all have seen that CGI is much more than rhetoric, and thank God for that," Denver Mayor Michael Hancock said during the closing session. He said the programs and investments announced this week "are poised to be truly transformational."

CGI America has drawn hefty focus for its political context — a gathering organized by Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton, and coming at a time when Hillary Clinton is considering whether to run for president in 2016.

But the annual conference, which was moved to Denver from Chicago for 2014 and 2015, resulted in real financial and organizational pledges.

The three-day event included announcements of 100 new commitments that — if and when they are fully funded — will be valued at more than $715 million, affecting more than 300,000 people in the U.S., according to organizers.

Added to promises made at three prior conferences in Chicago, the organization says the commitments now total nearly $16 billion.

Denver's new $8 million initiative to address chronic homelessness — people with substance abuse and mental health problems — will make use of an unusual funding model.

Although it's a program backed by the city and several partners, the supportive housing program won't tap taxpayer money — at least not initially.

Under the "social-impact bond" model, investors will provide the money up front using a contract that commits taxpayers to repaying them later — but only if the program saves the city money.

The program will include case management teams of social workers to help participants deal with substance abuse, physical and behavioral health and other issues.

The goal, Hancock said, is to "stop the perpetual cycle of going from the streets to jails to emergency rooms and back to the street" by building or providing supportive housing for up to 300 people starting next year.

Add it up, and city resources devoted to dealing with the chronically homeless amount to an estimated $11 million a year, according to the Denver Crime Prevention and Control Commission.

Its tracking has shown that 300 homeless people who interact with authorities the most collectively spend, each year, more than 14,000 nights in jail and visit detox facilities more than 2,000 times.

The program will be judged a success, city officials say, if it reduces such costs sharply. Exactly how it will be measured, the details of the program and how the bonds will be sold are still being worked out.

CH2M Hill's commitment focuses on an education issue surrounding the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, or STEM. Chelsea Clinton and several high-tech Colorado companies share that concern.

"Selfishly, we care a lot about the STEM fields, but it's not just STEM-educated people that work for us," CH2M Hill president and CEO Jacqueline Hinman told The Denver Post.

Even as a Fortune 500 company heading massive infrastructure projects across the globe and offering a strong culture of ethics, CH2M Hill still struggles to find enough people in the workforce pipeline to fill its growing needs, she said.

The rate of attrition for science and technology college majors is large problem, caused by a variety of socioeconomic factors, that has led to a shortage.

CH2M Hill Foundation's executive director Ellen Sandberg said the higher-education system, ironically, works as an exclusionary process for something everyone wishes was more inclusionary.

"They go to college and don't have role models," Sandberg said.

Seventy-five percent of students at DSST's nine schools are racial minorities, and 65 percent come from low-income households.

"We know it's good for business and have a hard time disassociating the two," said CH2M Hill president and CEO Jacqueline Hinman, who sat on a fiery panel about U.S. competitiveness in a quickly changing global community.

Hinman spends a lot of time with CEOs of other multinational corporations and said the idea of doing good is trending.

"Frankly, that's what we do as a company, and I'm seeing my counterparts in industry taking a more broad reaching view," she said, "because short-term gains don't work anymore."