Advocates pushing for a temporary safe camping site for people experiencing homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic believe that a majority of those who live or work in Denver support the proposal. And they have a survey to back up that belief.
"There’s broad public support, really, all across the city — in council districts all across the city," says Cole Chandler, director of the Colorado Village Collaborative, which is spearheading the proposal along with the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado.
The two groups surveyed 636 individuals in late April and early May; eight out of ten voiced support for a safe camping site, and over six out of ten expressed strong support for the idea. The survey collected feedback from homeowners, individuals active in neighborhood organizations and business owners, among other people.
"I think it really also shows a change. It shows that people that weren’t in support of 300 have shifted their view as well," Chandler says, referring to Initiative 300, a failed 2019 ballot measure that sought to revoke various laws that advocates saw as criminalizing homelessness, including the urban camping ban.
Opponents of the measure campaigned with the slogan "We can do better," but judging from the number of homeless on the streets today, Denver can definitely do better. Encampments have sprung up all over town.
The proposed safe camping site could improve the situation, proponents say. Designed to last for the length of the pandemic, the site would allow those who prefer living outside rather than staying in shelters to set up their tents in a stable location, without the risk of being swept. Up to 100 individuals could stay at the site, which would be equipped with amenities like sinks and toilets. By offering a stable environment, advocates believe the site and the city would be mitigating the potential spread of COVID-19; services offered at the site could help get people off the street permanently.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently recommends that cities not sweep homeless encampments unless a municipality is offering more permanent housing. "Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread," according to the CDC website.
The Colorado Village Collaborative and the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, together with the Salvation Army and St. Francis Center, have been pushing the temporary safe site project since early April. A majority of Denver City Council members, plus a handful of Denver lawmakers in the Colorado Legislature, support the proposal.
But that buy-in from elected officials only goes so far unless Mayor Michael Hancock gets behind the project.
Although Chandler and others pitched the idea to top leadership in the Hancock administration two months ago, they've yet to receive an indication of whether the city will allow them to move forward. In the meantime, while they initially were seeking some financial support from the city, proponents have found both possible sites and enough funding from non-governmental sources.
When asked in late April for his thoughts on the proposal, Hancock said, "At this time, we don’t see a reason for us to create outdoor sanctioned camp sites...in the city of Denver. We’re not going to move in that direction, but we are going to continue to work hard to create opportunities indoors for our residents."
But that stance could be shifting. At a June 24 press conference, where the mayor said the city was going to crack down on encampments, Hancock also expressed an openness to at least exploring a sanctioned camping site. "We’re looking at all the options right now," Hancock said, adding that city officials are studying "other places where these sanctioned camp sites have worked, as well as how they might work if we were to have them here in Denver. So we’re taking a look at it."
During the pandemic, the city has been cleaning up some encampments, but for the most part it's allowed them to stay on the streets.
Under this somewhat more hands-off approach, the number and size of encampments in Denver have been growing. "We are definitely seeing more people camping outside," says Cathy Alderman, vice president of communications and public policy for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.
In part, that trend reflects some people's reluctance to go into the large, temporary shelters set up during the pandemic at the Denver Coliseum and the National Western Center, according to Alderman. While those shelters were designed to allow for proper social distancing, they're still filled with hundreds of individuals in enclosed spaces on any given night.
Those seeking shelter who have recently been exposed to COVID-19 or are experiencing symptoms related to the virus are tested on site by clinicians, then quarantined in motel rooms until they get their results; the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless also tests people at the Stout Street Center. Approximately 450 homeless individuals at those locations have tested positive for COVID-19, and eight have died, Alderman says. But when the city tested fifty people staying at an encampment near 22nd and Champa streets, all of the tests came back negative.
"These testing results demonstrate that while people experiencing homelessness who are living outside may be in danger from the elements, crime being perpetrated against them, other health risks and enforcement of laws that punish their living situation, they are not more likely to be in danger of having or contracting COVID-19 while living in encampments," Alderman noted when the results of the tests were released on June 11. "This is likely because they are living in their own self-contained space with the opportunity to isolate themselves in their tents."
Survey says: Most people in Denver would like to set up just such a space.