Homeless encampments across Denver have increased in both number and size throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and during his State of the City speech on July 27, Mayor Michael Hancock said that they "cannot persist."
"The encampments that have appeared don't represent the humane approach that we have followed for years," Hancock continued. For much of Hancock's time in office — two full terms, as well as a year of his third and final term — his administration has dispersed encampments that have cropped up in Denver, with the aim of getting their occupants off the street and into shelters.
But these days, one of the first things residents mention about the state of their city is the spread of tents around Denver.
During his virtual speech, offered live on Facebook, Hancock mentioned the "We Can Do Better" slogan of the well-funded opposition campaign to Initiative 300, an unsuccessful May 2019 ballot measure that would have overturned numerous laws that advocates see as criminalizing homelessness, such as 2012's urban camping ban. (A Denver County judge declared that measure unconstitutional in December 2019; his ruling is currently on appeal.)
"We said we could do better, and we can do better," Hancock said, noting his support for a possible sales tax increase that would send money to homeless services; it could be on this November's ballot.
He also talked of the temporary safe outdoor spaces the city will set up for those who want to shelter in tents rather than go indoors. "COVID-19 is an extraordinary circumstance requiring an extraordinary response," Hancock said, explaining why he decided to back the initiative spearheaded by homeless service providers, in an attempt to help clear the encampments.
The parking lot outside the Denver Coliseum, which currently houses a temporary indoor shelter, has emerged as the top choice for the first safe outdoor space; it would hold up to fifty tents and a total of sixty people, taking couples into account. But while service providers say the parking lot is the best location for the first site, people living in the Globeville and Elyria-Swansea neighborhoods are pushing back against having the camp in their back yard, arguing that the city keeps dumping programs there that no other area wants.
"I just don’t think it’s fair to our neighbors. Most of us are barely surviving right now with COVID," says Donna Casillas, a sixty-year-old resident of Swansea. "No. Just no already. It’s enough. Other districts have to step up."
That opposition is having an effect, as the Coliseum parking lot's status as the first safe site appears unsteady. Service providers who were already looking for additional locations have now expanded their search to include a possible replacement for the Coliseum lot.
Putting some of the decision-making burden on others, Hancock had initially asked members of Denver City Council for site recommendations within their districts.
Four councilmembers — Chris Hinds, Amanda Sandoval, Jamie Torres and Candi CdeBaca — sent in recommendations that included private parking lots, state-owned parking lots and even the currently dormant Park Hill Golf Club. Any privately owned land would come with an extra cost; service providers say they've come up with enough funding to cover that first site, provided it's on city land.
No matter its location, it's unlikely that any safe camping site will be set up for a few weeks, so the unofficial encampments will have to "persist" at least for a while. And there are other obstacles to their removal.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises municipalities not to disperse encampments during the pandemic, saying such actions could spread COVID-19, unless safe housing is available.
And that auxiliary shelter located at the National Western Center that has been housing over 600 men on most nights is shutting down in mid-August. Many of those men will be able to stay at the Denver Coliseum, which will change from an-all women shelter, but there will not be room for all of them. The women who have been staying at the Denver Coliseum are being linked up with other shelter options in the city, including motel rooms. But even so, the city will have fewer shelter beds.
That's a worrisome development for providers, considering that homelessness was on the rise even before the pandemic. And if the past eight years of the urban camping ban have shown anything, it's that hundreds of folks will choose staying outside in a tent over using shelters in Denver, no matter what the law might say.
Compounding all of these challenges is the fact that the large encampment in front of the Capitol, in Lincoln Park, a site that was declared a public health hazard in January and closed for a thorough cleaning, was the scene of a shooting on July 23 that left one dead and two injured.
"Preliminary information indicates the two surviving victims may have been struck by errant gunfire. Investigators are still working to determine if the deceased victim was targeted by the suspect," says Doug Schepman, a spokesperson for the Denver Police Department.
Despite the shooting, the camp has been allowed to stay in place. "What happens next in Lincoln Park is complicated. We are trying to balance the needs of people experiencing homelessness with the need to protect public health and safety. As of [July 23], the city has delegated additional authority to the Colorado State Patrol to enforce certain city laws on state property within Denver, including Lincoln Park," says Derek Woodbury, a spokesperson for the Department of Housing Stability.
And then there's the sizable encampment surrounding Morey Middle School, also located in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. While Councilman Chris Hinds, who represents the area, has been advocating for the relocation of those camping outside Morey, many tents have remained in the area.
"We are growing increasingly concerned about the public health and public safety risks at many of the encampments. We are actively encouraging people living in them to take advantage of our shelters, where air- conditioning, food, water and restrooms are available, and where we can better connect people to more stable housing options and other services," Woodbury says.
Advocates argue that the large auxiliary shelters are potential COVID-19 incubators, which is why some feel safer staying in encampments. Recent testing of those at Lincoln Park and around Morey help support that idea: None of the 48 tests done at Morey encampment came back positive. Two of the 116 tests at Lincoln Park did, however.
This story has been updated to reflect the test results at Lincoln Park.
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