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Camp Out

The people behind the Denver Tent City Initiative are getting restless. They've been working on their proposal to create a tent city here since last summer, but progress seems stalled in committee.

So when the group met again last Saturday at the St. Francis Center, some members were ready to immediately set up camp on the Auraria campus. But after almost two hours of debate, they voted 32-5 to hold off on creating a camp until at least after the May 10 meeting of the Denver Commission on Homelessness, when that 36-member organization is scheduled to review the DTCI proposal. And Mayor John Hickenlooper has promised to meet with members of the group three days later to discuss their ideas.

Support for the tent-city proposal -- or at least a willingness to discuss it -- has been more forthcoming since a Westword story described how Portland's tent city works ("Pitching Tents," April 15), according to Dallas Malerbi, who wrote the DTCI proposal and led Saturday's strategy session. "Now they feel like they have some options," he says. "The mayor doesn't just meet with anyone, so it's a pretty generous gesture. The group agreed not to do direct action before then."

And two days later, on April 19, the city's homeless-service providers received some good news of their own. Fewer than 9,000 people were homeless in the metro area this winter, compared to almost 10,000 last year, according to the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative's annual point-in-time survey taken on January 19, 2004.

"We're happy that it's fewer people," Tom Luehrs, MDHI president and the executive director of the St. Francis Center, told a crowd of about thirty adults and children who'd gathered for the announcement. "The bad news is there are still 8,668 people who are homeless."

Complete survey details won't be available until the end of the month, but initial findings indicate that of the 8,668 people homeless in January, just 5,149 were living in transitional housing, such as subsidized apartments or relatives' homes. The other 40 percent were living on the streets, coming out of institutions or sleeping in shelters. Almost half -- 43 percent -- of those homeless on the night the survey was taken were children under the age of 21, and 60 percent were part of homeless families.

To arrive at this year's figure, Luehrs explained, MDHI didn't go knocking on windows and peering under loading docks and bridges; instead, the group based its findings on the number of people who approached various service providers looking for assistance. "We waited for people to come to us," he said.

And that may soon be how the homeless get their meals, too. At a Homeless Commission subcommittee meeting on April 20, Denver City Councilwoman Jeanne Robb presented a proposal that would create public meal zones, where food donations could be tracked -- and the trash contained.

Although other subcommittee members were quick to denounce any policy that might put a stop to free feeds, they expressed tentative support for organizing food distribution. And much to the chagrin of Debbie Ortega, executive director of the commission, Robb's proposal opened the door to yet another tent city discussion -- even though it wasn't on the agenda.

"This is like the third time since the early '90s that feeding has been an issue," said Luehrs. "Maybe the tent city would provide a location where people gather and there would be organization already established to give food."

 
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