Service Providers Clear Last Hurdle for First Safe-Camping Site

Service providers are ready to set up the city's first safe camping site at the First Baptist Church parking lot.
Service providers are ready to set up the city's first safe camping site at the First Baptist Church parking lot. Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
Service providers can set up the city's first safe-camping site, now that Denver officials have granted a temporary-use zoning permit for the parking lot of the First Baptist Church at Grant Street and East 14th Avenue.

"The status quo right now is not working, so doing nothing is no longer an option, and this is an option that provides a stabilized solution," says Kathleen Van Voorhis of the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, one of the organizations that has been championing the Safe Outdoor Spaces initiative.

The site will have space for up to 22 tents to house 30 women and trans individuals. According to Van Voorhis, the facility will be set up on December 1, and people will move in during the first two weeks of the month. Those staying at the safe-camping site will have access to job and housing-placement services as well as mental health care. Toilets and sinks will be located on site, with mobile showers available each day.

But for the people who will be staying there, perhaps the site's most important feature is that it won't be at risk of being swept by city authorities. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that encampments not be swept unless alternative housing is unavailable, in order to avoid the spread of COVID-19. Denver has been conducting sweeps throughout much of the pandemic, however, as unsanctioned encampments keep popping up around the city.

"I think the urgency has always been there, but we’re definitely seeing more," says Van Voorhis, noting that there are approximately 6,000 new COVID cases a day in Colorado and that temperatures are dropping.

The push to set up a safe-camping site in Denver has been a slog for service providers and city officials alike. The providers first pitched the idea of setting up safe-camping sites back in April. Mayor Michael Hancock, who signed the city's camping ban into law in 2012, was initially reluctant. But as the encampments grew in both size and number around the city, Hancock came around and announced in early July that he would support the establishment of three safe-camping sites that could each house up to sixty people.

The first attempts to set up such sites on city-owned land by the Denver Coliseum and on Welton Street in Five Points were false starts, as opposition from neighbors and waning political support upended the efforts.

Then, at the beginning of November, Earthlinks Inc., a local homeless service provider, filed an application with the city for a temporary-use zoning permit to operate a safe-camping site at the First Baptist Church. Since there was no rezoning required and the property wasn't owned by the city, the proposal did not require a vote by Denver City Council.

It did require a zoning permit, however, so Earthlinks dedicated considerable effort to showing how the site would be orderly, regulated and staffed, minimizing effects to the surrounding area. At the First Baptist Church site, for example, no guests will be allowed, and there also will be prohibitions on drinking and using drugs. In addition, mask-wearing and social distancing will be required, and trash pick-up will happen regularly. The site won't be a walk-up model, but will instead house individuals who have been referred by service providers.

Under those provisions, the city approved the temporary-use permit on November 20.

click to enlarge Service providers recently set up a model safe-camping site. - CONOR MCCORMICK-CAVANAGH
Service providers recently set up a model safe-camping site.
Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
Earthlinks has a six-month lease for the parking lot with the First Baptist Church.

It's highly likely that service providers will also set up a safe-camping site in the parking lot of the Denver Community Church in North Capitol Hill, since the nonprofit Colorado Village Collaborative has already struck an agreement with church leadership and filed an application for a temporary-use zoning permit there. The organization expects to start setting up that site on December 1.

According to the most recent Point in Time Count, which was done last January before the pandemic hit, 996 people were living in unsheltered settings in Denver. Service providers believe that number, already considered an undercount, has increased over the course of the pandemic.

Still, opening the first site with thirty individuals make sense, Van Voorhis says, since best practices show that safe-camping sites operate at the optimal level when fifty or fewer individuals live there.

The City of Denver is currently considering proposals for other safe-camping site locations, and they will not be limited to the three that Hancock had suggested months ago.

During a November 19 community webinar on safe-camping sites, Cole Chandler of the Colorado Village Collaborative said that the "project will be moving forward on both sites.” While some participants on that Zoom webinar expressed their support in the chat box, others shared their dismay and frustration at what they perceived to be a done deal made without much community input.

Here's your chance to offer more: Service providers working on the two safe-camping sites proposals will host a second virtual community meeting from 10 a.m. to noon on November 21. Get more information here.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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.