Four months after Mayor Michael Hancock expressed his support for safe-camping sites, city officials are formalizing the process for locating land and signing up service providers.
"We’ve never done this in Denver before, so we’re open to which providers want to bring forward an approach and a proposal," says Britta Fisher, executive director of the Department of Housing Stability. "And we know that for some, those proposals will have a specific site that they’ve been contemplating or working on. For others, they want to help run an outdoor space but may not have a specific site. Either way, we’re looking at what would people be willing to provide."
The city issued its Safe Outdoor Spaces request for proposals on October 28. Through the RFP process, which is open until 3 p.m. November 13, the city also anticipates receiving proposals for safe-parking sites that can be used by those who would like to stay in their cars.
The city could announce contract awards sometime in December, Fisher says. Depending on the type of site and arrangement, it's possible that setting up an official camp at a particular location might not need a vote of Denver City Council. Any site that requires some sort of lease agreement with the city would take a council vote, however.
The RFP, which will streamline the way that landowners and service providers can submit ideas, marks an important milestone in the long, controversial effort to set up safe-camping sites in Denver.
Early on in the pandemic, a group of service providers, most notably the Colorado Village Collaborative and the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, noted a worrisome trend: The number of homeless individuals sheltering outdoors in tents was on the rise. Unauthorized encampments were growing, without benefit of showers, toilets, sinks or trash bins. And they were subject to periodic sweeps by law enforcement authorities and other city employees.
For a partial fix, the service providers began pitching the Safe Outdoor Spaces initiative, to create sanctioned encampments that would have amenities to keep people and the areas in which they were camping sanitary and safe. The sites would be staffed around the clock and would also provide access to services.
Most important, they would give those sheltering outdoors a place to live without worrying about being swept during the pandemic: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that municipalities not disperse encampments — unless there's available housing — in order to prevent the further spread of COVID-19.
In April, Hancock expressed opposition to the proposal. By July 1, however, the mayor had come around and announced that he'd support the establishment of three sites, each with room for up to sixty people.
Service providers and city officials then homed in on a location for the first site: the parking lot outside the Denver Coliseum, which had already served as a temporary shelter. But residents of nearby neighborhoods rallied against that choice, and their district representative, Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca, withdrew her support for it.
The next site that seemed to have some potential was an area next to Sonny Lawson Park in Five Points. Neighbors, particularly the Five Points Business Improvement District, objected to this one, too, and after touting it, Hancock said the city had taken that option off the table.
"We've got two strikes on us and don't plan to get a third," Cole Chandler, director of the Colorado Village Collaborative, said after that. Working with the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, he then launched a citywide education campaign to help residents understand exactly what a safe-camping site would look like.
During the first weekend of October, they held an open house at a safe-camping site model in a church parking lot in Capitol Hill. "While I've certainly seen reports and pictures and things from other cities, it was helpful even to me to get a sense of the space," says Fisher. "Until we have one of these that is up and managed, it will similarly be a challenge to get people to wrap their heads around it until they see it."
Denver City Council recently approved funding for the safe-camping site project that could exceed half a million dollars. With so much money in play, the city decided to send out the RFP to formalize the process.
"We at the city like to have transparent processes for how you can bring forward proposals and access to our funding resources," explains Fisher.
Chandler says that the Colorado Village Collaborative and the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado will be applying.
"We hope to be selected and see the process move as quickly as possible," says Chandler. "Who knows —maybe it will entice other providers to jump in and bring their expertise as well."
Fisher is also hopeful that the city will receive plenty of proposals. "We're open to see what the proposals allow us to do and how our resources can be leveraged," she says. "We'll see what comes forward."
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