A day after Colorado State Patrol troopers assisted with the City of Denver's sweep of the homeless encampment at Lincoln Park in front of the Capitol, service providers are asking Governor Jared Polis to offer up state-owned land for a safe camping site.
"We write to you today in a spirit of partnership, hoping to work closely together to advance a timely solution to a growing crisis. This week, your administration has shown a willingness to address the growing COVID-19 homelessness crisis through state government intervention," a group of Denver service providers, including the Colorado Village Collaborative and the Denver Homeless Leadership Council, wrote to Polis on July 30. "At this time, we the undersigned call upon your administration to respond to the needs of the citizens of your state, both housed and unhoused, through another means of state government intervention: the provision of land to ensure the swift implementation of Temporary Safe Outdoor Spaces for unsheltered individuals."
Polis recently expressed a desire to see the Lincoln Park encampment swept.
In the aftermath of the July 29 morning that dispersed approximately 200 individuals from the park in front of the Capitol, service providers have been sharp in their criticism of both Polis and Mayor Michael Hancock. "We strongly condemn the City’s choice to evict those living in [Lincoln Park] without an adequate plan in place to address the needs of the people forced to live without housing in the area. We also strongly condemn Governor Polis’ support of this, both in words and contribution of state troopers to this appalling destruction of people’s temporary 'homes,'" says a statement from the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, one of the signatories to the letter asking for state-owned land.
Adds the Coalition's Cathy Alderman, "The governor has been largely absent for how we fix homelessness, not only for Denver, but for the state."
In the hours following the July 29 sweep, Polis sent out a statement mentioning work that the state and local governments have done to protect public health and safety during the pandemic. "The Capitol is not only the symbol of our Republic but also where the legislature convenes and a popular site for the exercise of free speech from perspectives as varied as our state is large," he added. "When people attend these hallowed grounds they should feel safe. Instead, the area recently became a public health hazard dangerous for both those experiencing homelessness and for visitors, and that is not acceptable especially during a pandemic. Denver has a special place in the heart of all Coloradans as the capital of our state, and ensuring that the area around the Capitol is clean and safe is important both symbolically and for our democracy to function.”
But Polis missed the mark with that statement, say some service providers.
"That just doesn't take into account the plight of the people who are there at all. It's as if homelessness is something that just needs to be cleaned up and not solved," says Alderman.
But according to a statement from Polis spokesman Conor Cahill, "The State has responded to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and has provided housing assistance to over 12,000 households since the beginning of the pandemic. About 3,400 of these households have been assisted through newly-created emergency programs. The State even activated the National Guard to support and staff many shelters in Denver. The State will continue to work with state and city homeless services and housing providers and anyone else, to identify safe solutions for people who are living outside. Our partners help us identify people who need immediate sheltering and we work together to identify the best location for them."
Hundreds of individuals experiencing homelessness are currently living on the streets of Denver. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises municipalities to not sweep encampments during the pandemic unless housing is available because of the potential for spreading COVID-19. However, the Hancock administration justified the sweep as necessary to preserve public health and safety, as the encampment in Lincoln Park had become unsanitary and was also the scene of a recent triple shooting that left one dead.
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While the plan to establish safe camping sites has been in the works for months, Mayor Hancock had opposed the concept, and finally gave it the green light on July 1. But even after that approval, service providers and the Hancock administration have struggled to identify the first Safe Outdoor Space site. After it became public that the preferred choice was the parking lot outside the Denver Coliseum, where a temporary shelter is already located, residents of the Globeville and Elyria-Swansea neighborhoods began voicing strong opposition, saying that the city keeps dumping programs there that are unwanted elsewhere.
Two members of Denver City Council, at-large representative Debbie Ortega and Candi CdeBaca, who represents the GES area, have already said that they'll oppose any agreement regarding a safe camping site outside the Coliseum. With that in mind, service providers are again searching for a location, and looking at state-owned land as a possibility.
Earlier this month, the Hancock administration asked members of Denver City Council to suggest possible locations within their districts. Councilman Chris Hinds, who represents the Capitol Hill neighborhood, sent in a number of recommendations, including two parking lots that are state-owned. One of those lots is located at East 12th Avenue and Sherman Street, while the other is located across the street from the Governor's Mansion.
This story has been updated to include a statement from Governor Jared Polis's office.