Are Safe Camping Sites Here to Stay in Denver?

Are safe camping sites going to stick around in Denver post-COVID?
Are safe camping sites going to stick around in Denver post-COVID? YouTube
Five months have passed since the first safe-camping site opened in Denver, and the overall concept continues to get high marks.

"Since the unsanctioned camp closed across the street from our site, I have not heard a single complaint from a neighbor," says Cole Chandler, director of the Colorado Village Collaborative, which runs a safe-camping site for people experiencing homelessness in the parking lot of the Denver Community Church at East 16th Avenue and Pearl Street.

The city finally approved the safe-camping site concept in July, three months after it was first proposed by service providers as a way to limit the spread of COVID-19 among those sheltering outdoors.

Now, some neighborhood advocates are pushing to ensure that when the pandemic subsides, the safe-camping concept doesn't disappear in Denver, which has at least 1,000 people sleeping on the streets every night.

In March, a collective of representatives from neighborhood organizations that cover Capitol Hill, Uptown, City Park West, RiNo and Curtis Park, among other areas, signed on to a letter sent to Mayor Michael Hancock and Denver City Council members pitching the idea of keeping safe-camping sites as a tool going forward.

"The two existing Safe Outdoor Space (SOS) sites...have had some remarkable success in their short tenure and it is time to scale them to provide temporary, yet sustained support to our most vulnerable," Frank Locantore, executive director of the Colfax Ave Business Improvement District, wrote to the elected officials in the March 10 letter. Proponents of the safe-camping site model say that it helps homeless individuals connect more easily with services while also developing a sense of stability when they don't have to worry about sweeps or where to sleep at night.

A day later, Chris Hinds, the councilman for District 10, which covers the existing safe-camping sites in the Uptown and Capitol Hill neighborhoods, responded: "The two Safe Outdoor Spaces in District 10 have been an incredible success. While my office received more than a thousand emails in opposition to the Safe Outdoor Spaces before they opened, few neighbors have expressed concerns about their operation after they've opened, and most of those concerns are more about the adjacent unsanctioned encampments rather than the SOS sites themselves."

The safe-camping site concept "should absolutely be kept after the pandemic," Hinds tells Westword.

Hancock's office isn't quite as forthcoming.

"We’ve been pleased with the first two Safe Outdoor Spaces over the past few months. We know there will be ongoing economic and housing impacts even after the last of the public health orders have been lifted, especially for our unhoused neighbors living on the street. That’s why we have allocated $900,000 to fund two SOS's through the end of the year," says Mike Strott, a spokesperson for Hancock, who toured the two sites back in mid-January. During the first months of the pandemic, Hancock had rejected the idea of setting up safe- camping sites before finally coming around to the idea in the summer.

Chandler is optimistic that the safe-camping site model can continue to grow in Denver. "I think the need is clearly there. And we have seen how successful these sites can be and how positive their impact on a neighborhood can be," says Chandler, adding that clinicians were able to vaccinate almost all of the Denver Community Church safe-camping site residents earlier this month.

Robin Kniech, an at-large member of Denver City Council, says that the city has "an obligation" to continue deploying safe-camping sites.

"Unfortunately, the crisis of homelessness is unlikely to subside with the vaccine," she explains. "It would be silly to turn our backs on what we've learned works at the end of this pandemic. If we're serious about building back better, then safe outdoor spaces will continue to be far better than unregulated camping for both unsheltered individuals and communities."

The Denver zoning administrator would need to approve any future safe-camping sites.

The leases for the two existing sites — the coed facility at the Denver Community Church and one for women at the First Baptist Church in Capitol Hill, which have a combined capacity of seventy — are set to expire at the end of May. The Colorado Village Collaborative has already struck an agreement with Park Hill United Methodist Church to move its site to a parking lot at 5209 Montview Boulevard by June 1; it will make room there for some of the women now staying at the First Baptist Church site.

"We can do about 45 units for up to 50 people at this one larger site. We’re going to offer a space to everyone who is currently at our space and then offer 15 spaces to the people currently at the First Baptist Church site," says Chandler.

Park Hill United Methodist Church and the CVC will host two community information meetings for neighbors in mid-May, with the hope of presenting potential opponents with compelling evidence for why the sites make sense.

"It really is an extension of what we think to love our neighbors and love all our neighbors, especially our most vulnerable neighbors — and if we have the ability to help, we should step up and do that," says Nathan Adams, lead pastor at the church, which shares a space with Temple Micah. The lease for the parking lot site will last from the beginning of June through the end of the year.

"We do have a track record that this can have a positive impact. We’ve seen that the first six months are successful. Let’s see what happens with the second set of six months," says Chris Herndon, councilman for District 8, which includes the Park Hill United Methodist Church site, regarding the possibility of using safe- camping sites after the pandemic.

With the collective safe-camping site capacity in Denver shrinking from seventy to fifty in the coming weeks, the neighborhood advocates who sent the letter to Hancock and councilmembers last month also suggested setting up safe-camping sites in every Denver City Council district.
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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.