Denver City Council Approves First Safe-Camping Site on City-Owned Land

Denver City Council approved the first safe-camping site on city-owned property.
Denver City Council approved the first safe-camping site on city-owned property. Evan Semon
In a 10-1 vote on November 29, Denver City Council approved the first safe-camping site on city-owned land.

"Safe Outdoor Spaces are safe, clean, and healthy. They make a positive impact on the people they serve with minimal impact to the surrounding neighborhood. Tonight’s vote, and how it went down, shows that what was once a novel concept is becoming a normal part of our life in a city where more than 1,000 people will sleep outdoors tonight," Cole Chandler, executive director of the Colorado Village Collaborative, the nonprofit running safe-camping sites in Denver, tweeted after the vote.

The safe-camping site, which will be equipped with uniform ice-fishing tents and centralized access to sanitation and services, will be set up in a parking lot next to a Denver Human Services building at 3815 Steele Street in the Clayton neighborhood; the lease with the CVC approved by city council will run for one year, with the opportunity for two six-month renewals. The first residents are expected at the Steele Street site in mid-December.

The lone "no" vote came from Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer. "I've consistently voted against using city funds for safe outdoor spaces and will continue to do so tonight," she said. Councilmembers Chris Hinds and Chris Herndon were absent during the vote, but Hinds, like other Denver officials, is now enthusiastic about the concept.

"This is a transformative model," said Hinds, whose district hosted the city's first two safe-camping sites, during a November 16 Denver City Council Finance and Governance committee meeting.

There are currently three safe-camping sites in Denver — in a parking lot next to Park Hill United Methodist Church, which will shut down at the end of December, and on the campus of Regis University, which will shut down at the end of March. And a site on a Denver Health-owned parking lot at 780 Elati Street will welcome residents for the first time today, November 30.

This support of safe-camping sites represents a marked turnaround by the city. In April 2020, when service providers first proposed setting up safe-camping sites for harm-reduction purposes during the pandemic, Mayor Michael Hancock said he did not approve of the concept. And even after the mayor came around to the concept that summer, elected officials withdrew their support from proposed sites on city-owned property next to the Denver Coliseum and in Five Points after neighbors complained. The CVC and other service providers subsequently focused on private property, since safe-camping sites there would only require the approval of a permit from the Denver zoning administrator, not the full vote of council on a lease. The first two safe-camping sites opened on church property in December 2020.

Now the city is continuing to consider Denver-owned land for additional sites, and the Hancock administration earmarked $4 million in federal COVID emergency relief money for safe-camping sites in 2022.

There are currently up to 1,500 people experiencing unsheltered homelessness in Denver. The Colorado Village Collaborative expects to be serving up to 300 individuals at safe-camping sites by mid-January.
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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.