Denver Close to Approving First Safe-Camping Site on City Property

Denver City Council could soon approve a safe-camping site on city property.
Denver City Council could soon approve a safe-camping site on city property. Evan Semon
On November 16, the Denver City Council Finance and Governance committee unanimously approved a lease agreement for a safe-camping site on city-owned property in the Clayton neighborhood. If it's approved by the full Denver City Council within the next few weeks, service providers will be able to set up Denver's first safe-camping site on city-owned property — marking a major shift from the city's position in the early days of the pandemic.

"I think this is a good way to help people get stabilized and help them get people back into work and really help them get their lives back on track," Councilwoman At-Large Debbie Ortega said during the committee meeting.

The lease is for a parking lot next to a Denver Human Services building at 3815 Steele Street; it would run for one year, with the opportunity for two six-month renewals.

"This is a transformative model," said Councilman Chris Hinds, whose district hosted the city's first two safe-camping sites, which opened on church-owned parking lots in the Capitol Hill area last December. Initially cautiously optimistic about the idea of the sites — which include centralized access to sanitation and services while providing individuals shelter in ice-fishing tents — Hinds has since become an enthusiastic supporter.

There are currently two safe-camping sites in the city — in a parking lot next to Park Hill United Methodist Church and on the campus of Regis University. A site on a Denver Health-owned parking lot at 780 Elati Street is set to welcome residents for the first time this week.

The lease will soon be up at the Park Hill location, but Regis has extended its agreement. If the Human Services site receives council approval, the Colorado Village Collaborative, the nonprofit running the sites, expects to be serving up to 300 people at safe-camping sites across Denver by early 2022. A team of eight CVC employees runs each location.

So far, the CVC has housed over 120 individuals experiencing homelessness through its safe-camping sites. Seventeen of those individuals have moved into longer-term housing, and eighteen have become employed or started job training. People living at the CVC sites have participated in over 350 case management appointments, as well.

The problems have been relatively few. "We’ve experienced about two total police interactions in a dozen months," CVC director Cole Chandler says.

Councilmembers who have hosted sites in their districts see them as positive models. Councilman Chris Herndon, whose district includes the Park Hill site, is looking to add another site. Councilwoman Amanda Sandoval, who represents northwest Denver, has spoken highly about the Regis University site and supported the lease extension.

And Mayor Michael Hancock, who was not supportive of the safe-camping site model when it was proposed in April 2020, has now bought into it, with his administration earmarking $4 million for safe-camping sites in 2022 using federal COVID emergency relief money.

But eighteen months ago, the safe-camping site model faced significant challenges. Attempts to establish sites on city-owned property in the summer of 2020 flopped after politicians withdrew their support for the proposals. Service providers then shifted their sights to private property, since council would not be required to vote on those leases. But the private property safe-camping sites caused consternation among some neighbors; while those in Capitol Hill eventually said that the sites had worked out, some Park Hill residents have a pending lawsuit regarding that safe-camping site.

With an estimated 1,500 people experiencing unsheltered homelessness in Denver, Chandler says that his team would be up to managing as many as twenty sites, if that's what the city wants.

"The need is certainly there," Chandler said.
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.