When news broke in July that homeless service providers viewed the Denver Coliseum as the ideal location for the city's first temporary safe camping site, some residents of the nearby Globeville and Elyria-Swansea neighborhoods objected. For far too long, they argued, the city had used that part of town as a dumping ground for services and projects that other areas didn't want.
While the discussion continued and some members of Denver City Council said they'd oppose putting a safe camping site outside the Coliseum, service providers searched for an alternative site in what could become the first of several official encampments under the Safe Outdoor Space program, which would offer sinks and toilets as well as a place to set up tents for the duration of public-health orders during the coronavirus pandemic.
Now, after looking at over a hundred locations, they've identified one possibility: a small strip of city-owned land located between Sonny Lawson Park and the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library right off Welton Street in Five Points.
The path to how this location emerged as a contender stands in stark contrast to how the Coliseum site was chosen. In this case, residents of the Curtis Park Neighbors organization, whose area butts up against Welton Street, introduced the idea of putting a camp near the library. However, the final location selected wasn't the piece of land that neighbors had proposed to the city back in August.
"Our suggestion was actually the parking lot of the library that’s not actually being used currently on the north side of their building," says Ryan Cox, chair of the homelessness solutions committee for the Curtis Park Neighbors organization.
But the group working to establish the first safe camping site came across a problem with that proposed site: Library staff still wanted to be able to use the parking lot. And the lot itself wasn't actually that sizable.
"So we said, 'Well, could we use the plaza/right of way?' And to our surprise, the answer [from the city] wasn't an immediate no," says Cole Chandler, director of the Colorado Village Collaborative, one of the groups advocating for the establishment of the safe camping site.
On September 12, Mayor Michael Hancock posted a note on Facebook that the city planned to move ahead with engaging neighbors about a possible safe camping site on the strip of land between the library and the park, known as Charles R. Cousins Plaza, as well as a small section of 24th Street.
"We want to emphasize any campsites, wherever they are located, would be temporary, staffed 24 hours a day, and would bring a controlled environment to the uncontrolled encampments in neighborhoods across the city. We look forward to the discussion with neighbors about this particular site, and with residents around the city as other sites come into focus," Hancock wrote.
The plaza is adjacent to a dog park and has trees as well as lighting, so setting up a safe camping site would be easier there than in a parking lot. The site would be able to house up to 33 tents and 40 people.
Still, it's a public right-of-way, Cox points out, and the library lot just hasn't been used that much during the pandemic. "All things being equal, we would love to see the plaza serve as a plaza, but it’s a difficult situation. No site is perfect," Cox says, adding that he believes the pros outweigh the cons for using the plaza as a safe camping site if the parking lot isn't an alternative. "We do think this is a move in the right direction for everyone involved."
Cox notes that dozens of people are already camping out in the area. Members of Curtis Park Neighbors meet there every Wednesday morning to clean up Sonny Lawson Park and talk with those staying in tents in the area. "I personally think that it’s needed and will help stabilize folks that are already there. I think it’ll lead to a cleaner and safer environment for everybody," says Cox.
That attitude has service providers praising Cox and other residents who have been proactive in working on the homeless issue in that area.
"The neighbors in the Curtis Park neighborhood have been engaged on the ground level in this issue for a long time," says Chandler. "The neighborhood that they live in is a neighborhood where unhoused people are a part of the community, they’re a part of the reality there, and they have been trying to find solution-oriented pathways to really make the situation livable for people on all sides."
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And Mike Strott, spokesman for Mayor Hancock, offers this: "We’re pleased to see neighbors positively engaging with us and the Colorado Village Collaborative on a potential location for this emergency and temporary step to support those experiencing homelessness in our city."
Together with Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca, whose district includes the proposed site as well as the Denver Coliseum, Chandler will hold virtual community meetings three times this week to hear thoughts from local residents on the location. CdeBaca, who has expressed support for safe camping sites as a concept but voiced opposition to the Coliseum site after getting pushback from neighbors, has declined to comment on the new proposal.
Chandler expects to know if the Safe Outdoor Space working group can move forward on the site within a week.
In the coming weeks, Denver City Council will vote on a request by the Hancock administration for a $650,000 allocation to help fund three camping sites. Additionally, council will soon vote on a proposal that would allow the zoning administrator to permit safe camping sites in areas of Denver that are not currently zoned for such facilities.