Denver service providers first began pushing their Safe Outdoor Spaces concept back in April, as homeless encampments began springing up across the city. The idea, which has worked in other cities, is to offer tents in protected areas to people experiencing homelessness, while also providing them with sinks, toilets and access to services. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that municipalities not sweep encampments during a pandemic, in order to avoid spreading COVID. I've covered the safe-camping proposal since spring, reporting on Mayor Michael Hancock's initial opposition, then his turnaround in July; following the ups and downs for service providers as neighbors objected to potential sites; sharing passionate commentary from both supporters and proponents. Finally, I decided to experience what I'd been writing about.
I arrived at the camp around 4:15 p.m. on December 14; Cole Chandler, director of the Colorado Village Collaborative, the organization staffing the site, greeted me. Cuica Montoya, a former peer navigator with Denver Public Library and now the safe-camping site coordinator, was also there, setting up the last key pieces of the site before opening day on December 15. There is room for forty individuals, and they can stay for up to six months — which is as long as the site's lease runs.
The first safe-camping site in the city had opened a week earlier; it's reserved for thirty women and trans individuals. Both are on private church property and run by service providers, not the city; Denver is still researching potential locations for official safe-camping sites.
It was a cold night, with snow falling and temperatures dipping close to 20 degrees — but I've spent colder nights camping. Typically used for ice fishing, the tents at both the Denver Community Church and the First Baptist Church sites are able to withstand the elements better than a run-of-the-mill camping tent. The Colorado Village Collaborative has put an electric heating pad on the floor of each tent, which stands off the ground on a wooden pallet to take off some of the chill. I'd brought my own sleeping bag, which was good up to 35 degrees.
I plugged in the heating pad (the tents are equipped with plugs; I'd brought a power strip, too) and headed to the large community tent, which had warm air being pumped in, hoping that my tent would warm up while I was gone. For about an hour, I spoke with Cody, a staff member who has experienced homelessness, about everything from what it's like living in Denver to whether Batman is a good guy or an asshole. Then, after eating the dinner I'd brought with me, I retired to my tent, dressed in three layers on top and three layers on the bottom, plus ear warmers and a neck warmer, and climbed into my sleeping bag around 9 p.m.
I watched the end of the Monday Night Football game on my phone and tweeted a bit. From the light of my phone, I could still see my breath. Besides my feet, which remained cold, I felt fine.
Before the opening of the First Baptist Church site, which is run by the nonprofit Earthlinks in collaboration with the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, I'd toured that facility. A staffer had shown me one of the tents, and said that with the heating pad, it could reach 70 degrees inside. Unfortunately, that appeared to be fake news.
As a result, service providers have been adding heating blankets to the tents at the First Baptist Church site. Lesson learned, the Denver Community Church site started out with the blankets. I'd plugged mine in, but I could still see my breath.
And there are many people staying on the streets. The goal of the safe-camping site is to offer some protection — from the elements, from sweeps — while also providing access to services.
Throughout the night, I periodically woke up feeling chilled, only to realize I had kicked off the blanket. While I wrote "pretty cold" twice in a note in my phone as a reminder, I never experienced the bone-chilling cold you can feel while camping in the Colorado mountains.
Of course, cold is just one of the challenges that individuals experiencing homelessness face. I didn't have to worry about being contacted by the police or being preyed on by others. And I knew where I was going the next morning.
When I woke up around 7:15 a.m. on December 15, I got up and brushed my teeth at the sinks set up in the warm main tent, then headed to the basement of the Denver Community Church, whose congregation serves breakfast to people experiencing homelessness every Tuesday and Thursday. As I ate eggs, bacon and pancakes, Chandler and Montoya stood at a microphone set up in the middle of the large room to let those present know that the safe-camping site was opening in just a few hours; the announcement was met with cheers and applause from many of the diners. One man actually jumped for joy.
Service providers have been doing outreach for a few weeks and had been signing up future residents; now individuals kept going over to the two to verify that they were on the list. The forty available spots were all claimed, and Montoya added other names to an increasingly long waitlist. The demand highlighted just how much the need for shelter outweighs what's available at the city's two safe-camping sites. And there will soon be more need: The city has planned a December 17 sweep of an encampment of fifty tents just across the street.
Just hours after opening the site, Chandler reported that 39 people had moved in, in addition to two dogs and one cat. Thirty-two of the new residents had come across the street from the unofficial encampment.