Park Hill Safe-Camping Site Welcomes First Residents

Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
Each resident of the safe camping site has his own ice-fishing tent.
The city's latest safe-camping site for people experiencing homelessness opened this week in the parking lot of Park Hill United Methodist Church, on Montview Boulevard between Forest and Glencoe streets.

“As Christians, Christ calls and expects us to put our faith into action in tangible ways that share the love of God with others. We hope that over the next six months our newest Park Hill residents will indeed experience that love," says Nathan Adams, lead pastor at the church.

By June 25, two days after the site opened, thirteen people had moved into the ice-fishing tents in the parking lot. That morning, as a few residents headed to the communal tent to grab breakfast, others worked with volunteers and staffers of the Colorado Village Collaborative, which runs the site, to finish some setup projects.

The safe-camping site concept provides people experiencing homelessness with a stable living situation while also offering centralized access to services, such as job placement and housing assistance. Without having to worry about their belongings disappearing during the day, residents are able to work, too. Although the church is in a residential area, there's a bus stop two blocks north on East 23rd Avenue, and another four blocks south on Colfax Avenue.

So far, all of the safe-camping sites in the city have been on private property, which allows them to be set up with permission from Denver Zoning and without a vote by Denver City Council. Service providers and other proponents of the concept first approached the city in spring 2020, shortly after the pandemic hit, with the idea of introducing such sites in Denver. Although Mayor Michael Hancock initially opposed the idea, he signed off on it a year ago. So far, though, the city has not been able to find a Denver-owned location for an authorized site.

The suggestion of putting a safe-camping site at the Park Hill church initially met with vocal opposition from some neighbors, and opponents filed a lawsuit in Denver District Court. Judge A. Bruce Jones dismissed that suit on May 19, saying that the five plaintiffs had not yet exhausted the potential administrative remedies to their complaints.

For starters, the five plaintiffs — Kurt Monigle, Dave Rodman, Jean-Baptiste Varnier, Justin Lovac and Blair Taylor — had not filed an appeal with the Denver Board of Adjustment for Zoning Appeals, a route that they're taking now. The Board of Adjustment for Zoning Appeals will hold a hearing on a general challenge to the Denver Zoning Administrator's right to allow safe-camping sites on July 20, and a challenge specific to the Park Hill site on July 27.

But in the run-up to that date, the safe-camping site outside the Park Hill United Methodist Church will continue to welcome new residents; staffers expect it to reach its forty-person capacity within a few weeks.

Andrew DiCarlo, the site coordinator, and other staffers are asking residents to keep moving when they leave the fenced site, so that neighbors don't complain; they're also encouraging residents not to hang out on the grassy median on Forest Street.

DiCarlo believes that about 90 percent of the neighbors support the site, and about 10 percent oppose it. "No one has been real nasty," he says. "I don't anticipate a lot of what people are afraid of, like drugs, violence or other homeless people coming to the neighborhood, being the case."

In the first few days of operation, one person stopped by to mention "three pieces of trash" nearby, according to DiCarlo. "Another said, 'You know, the residents are not supposed to be in the alley.'" But DiCarlo had seen that person, and it was a neighbor walking a dog.

Some neighbors are stepping up to help at the site. "One neighbor calls weekly and says, 'What do you need?'" DiCarlo notes. "Our volunteer schedule has been filled." Most of those volunteers are either neighbors or members of Park Hill United Methodist Church or Temple Micah, which shares space there.

The Park Hill safe-camping site is one of two sites currently open in Denver; the other is located on a parking lot on the Regis University campus. Both sites have leases that run through the end of the year. The leases for two previous sites — one in Capitol Hill and one in Uptown — ran from last December through May. Thirteen people who had been residents of those earlier sites are now in longer-term housing, according to Colorado Village Collaborative staff.

Putting this site in Park Hill will expose another part of the city to the realities of homelessness and how such programs can help, DiCarlo says: "How couldn't it make a difference?"