After months of reluctance, Mayor Michael Hancock has given his approval for the establishment of temporary safe camping sites for Denver's homeless population during the coronavirus pandemic.,
“Due to COVID-19, the humanitarian crisis of homelessness is even more dire today than it was just a few short months ago. These are extraordinary times that call for extraordinary measures," Hancock says in a statement released today, July 1, that notes the mayor has approved the establishment of multiple campsites.
"We are pleased to partner with the City and a long list of community based organizations to bring this safe, dignified, human centered model to Denver," adds Cole Chandler, director of the Colorado Village Collaborative, in that same statement.
The Colorado Village Collaborative and the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, along with three other service providers, have been pushing the idea of a temporary safe site for months. Their proposal quickly acquired the support of a majority of Denver City Council members, the major homeless service provider organizations, and multiple state legislators from Denver.
However, while the initial proposal, which called for one site for up to 100 individuals with access to bathrooms, was presented to key Hancock administration members in late April, it's taken over two months for the mayor to endorse the idea. And when first asked about it, he expressed considerable opposition.
"At this time, we don’t see a reason for us to create outdoor sanctioned camp sites...in the city of Denver," he said at a press conference in late April. "We’re not going to move in that direction, but we are going to continue to work hard to create opportunities indoors for our residents."
As the weeks went by, however, Hancock expressed more openness to the idea. That was particularly apparent at a June 24 press conference, when the mayor said that the city was taking a look at the idea of "sanctioned camping sites."
Around that same time, the backers of the proposal released the results of a survey showing that a strong majority of those who live and work in Denver support the establishment of a temporary safe camping site during the pandemic.
Not only does the Hancock administration now say that it backs the establishment of temporary safe camping sites, today's announcement also notes that "outreach, healthcare and mental-health workers will intensify their visits to encampments, and the city will increase efforts to clean encampments with more frequent trash pickup and used-needle collection."
Although hundreds of men and women are still making use of the large, temporary shelters at the National Western Center and the Denver Coliseum, many are still opting to camp outdoors. Over the past two months, tents have popped up all over downtown, in Capitol Hill and other spots, particularly Lincoln Park in front of the Capitol, which was closed in January for a major cleanup, then reopened.
Denver officials have alternated between leaving these sites alone, cleaning up the camps and allowing people to promptly return, and cleaning them and cordoning off the areas for days. That last approach goes against federal guidelines during the pandemic: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises municipalities to avoid sweeps of homeless encampments because they can increase the spread of COVID-19.
Advocates hope to have the first site established within two weeks. In a statement applauding the city's move, Tom Luehrs, executive director of the Saint Francis Center, says: “This is a momentous decision by the city of Denver and Mayor Hancock. I believe it will result in a safer, healthier, and more dignified experience for our sisters and brothers who need to live outside during this time of their lives. I think all members of our community will benefit from this Safe Outdoor Space.”
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While the providers pushing the proposal say they've secured outside funding for the camps, a GoFundMe site has been created to help defer the costs of tents and sleeping bags.
In the announcement expressing his support for establishing temporary safe camping sites, Hancock also indicated that he's backing a ballot initiative being championed by Councilwoman Robin Kniech, which would raise the city's sales tax by .25 percent and send that money to a dedicated fund for homelessness.
"The proposal would increase housing options, rental assistance and supportive services. It also would increase and enhance shelter capacity and quality, allowing for 24-hour services, counseling and case management," according to the city.
Denver City Council would have to approve this measure in order for it to be referred to the November ballot.