City officials and nonprofit service providers have identified the Denver Coliseum parking lot as the preferred location for the first temporary safe camping site for those experiencing homelessness.
"I have tried very hard for months to find a location to site the first of what needs to be multiple Safe Outdoor Spaces, and so far, this is the best site I have seen," says Cole Chandler, the director of the Colorado Village Collaborative, one of the organizations behind the initiative.
For Chandler, the Hancock administration and others pushing for the establishment of safe camping sites, the Denver Coliseum parking lot emerged as the top choice because of its zoning, size, accessibility, proximity to nearby services — and the fact that it's one-third of a mile and across a highway from the closest residence. Additionally, since the land is city-owned, it would cost just $10 to lease.
"We're probably farther from residential at this site than we probably would be at any other site," says Councilwoman-At-Large Robin Kniech, who's been championing the proposal. "We can't ask people for permission about who gets to live next door when there's folks who have nowhere else to go."
Chandler and others working on the safe site project had found private spots that appeared to be suitable, but they were either cost-prohibitive, too small, or zoned under Denver's older, more restrictive code, making them a non-starter. The project is being funded entirely by nonprofit dollars and donations.
For over a week, the initiative's proponents have been meeting with community leaders in the Globeville and Elyria-Swansea area to let them know about their preference for establishing the safe camping site at the Coliseum lot, which could hold up to fifty tents and a maximum of sixty people (tents might house couples), as well as bathrooms and hand-washing stations.
There's been opposition to the idea from some key community advocates who feel that the city continues to place services in this area that are unwanted elsewhere. "This community has been ignored for years by the City and County of Denver," says Angela, a resident for close to five decades who asked that her last name not be used. "We're getting really tired of this happening to us. We barely have resources in GES for the people who live here."
Despite heavy opposition from neighbors, Angela notes, the tiny home village established by the Colorado Village Collaborative moved to the area last year. Additionally, both temporary homeless shelters set up as the COVID-19 pandemic hit were established close by, at the National Western Center and the Denver Coliseum itself.
"They're not going to leave. They're going to stay here in our neighborhood," Angela says of those staying in the shelters. "We know what's going to happen. Our kids don't need to be subjected to that."
But local service providers say that, aside from a tragic killing in June at the National Western Center, operations have generally gone smoothly at the two shelters.
"It was a good space and it worked out, especially when RTD wasn’t charging fares and we were able to move people at their own convenience in and out," says Cathy Alderman of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, which will provide clinical COVID-19 services at any camping site at the Denver Coliseum parking lot. RTD suspended its fare collection in early April and reinstated it earlier this month.
Chandler believes the need for a safe camping site is particularly urgent right now, and the public should take that into account.
"It's easy to be critical of where a complex project like this will land," he says. "But people on our streets are suffering, and neighborhoods across our city are already feeling that burden. We don't get to do this work in a hypothetical laboratory; we have to make difficult decisions based on the real options that we have before us. Given the real options before us, I think the Denver Coliseum is, objectively, the best site I've seen to date.
"We have worked hard to build relationships in the Globeville neighborhood over the last eighteen months, and that's why we wanted neighbors to hear about this directly from us," Chandler continues. "We have been socializing the idea with neighborhood leaders for the last eight days, and will continue to do so with a series of open, honest community conversations in the days ahead."
Assuming that no major obstacles emerge to the Denver Coliseum proposal, Denver City Council will soon vote on whether the parking lot can be used as a safe camping site, and it could be operational as early as mid-August. The majority of councilmembers have already said that they support such a facility.
Allowing a safe camping site in Denver marks a major shift for the Hancock administration, which had been opposed to any urban camping in the city. It took Mayor Michael Hancock over two months to go from opposing the concept to giving the green light to up to three sites. During that time, the size and number of homeless encampments increased dramatically across the city, especially in Capitol Hill and Five Points.
On July 8, Hancock asked members of Denver City Council to suggest possible safe camping site locations within their own districts, setting a deadline of July 17.
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Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca had her office survey constituents about possible locations, and received 191 responses.
"Privately owned large-event venue parking lots and facilities," such as the Coors Field parking lots, was "by far the most-suggested category," according to an email from a CdeBaca aide to a Hancock staffer on July 16.
Survey participants also happened to suggest the Coliseum parking lot, the email notes: "However, this received far fewer votes than the Coors Field location."
Both Coors Field and the Coliseum lot are in CdeBaca's district. "We were informed [the mayor's] decision was made prior to receiving the input he solicited," she says. "I support the Colorado Village Collaborative as a partner that has been willing to work with ANY recommendation, and I am saddened that the Mayor asked for feedback without any intentions of honoring it. We will work with any situation because of the urgency of the need, but we hope to see a site in every district within the next month. We cannot continue to concentrate inequities in a single neighborhood or district just because it is the most politically convenient option."