Here's How a Safe-Camping Site in Capitol Hill Would Work

This parking lot next to the First Baptist Church could soon be the location of a safe camping site.
This parking lot next to the First Baptist Church could soon be the location of a safe camping site. Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
With temperatures dropping and days getting shorter, the urgency to create temporary fixes for those currently sheltering in tents on the city's streets is increasing.

But while Denver residents agree that the status quo isn't working, the next step is the subject of hot debate. The concept of setting up safe-camping sites for those experiencing homelessness has been particularly divisive, even as unauthorized encampments continue to pop up in different parts of the city.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that municipalities not sweep homeless encampments unless housing is available. Safe-camping sites will allow those living in tents to do so without fear of being swept, and also in a sanitary environment, service providers say. But dozens of people have written to local elected officials, saying that while they recognize the importance of taking action, sanctioning encampments in the city — especially in their own neighborhood — is not the way to do it.

"As a resident of Capitol Hill, I DON’T want homeless encampments in my neighborhood," one person recently emailed Denver City Councilman Chris Hinds, whose district includes the two proposed safe-camping sites that could go online in December. "Experience has shown that they become centers for crime and disease. Yes, the homeless problem needs to be addressed and I voted for funding for homelessness solutions. But encampments are not the solution. The 2 proposed encampments will just become sources of more problems."

Hinds notes that his office has received over 100 emails on the subject from constituents; close to 85 percent oppose safe-camping sites in Capitol Hill.

"They go into explaining why they oppose and the information they provide explaining why they oppose does not reconcile with the information that I have heard from the proponents," Hinds says. "Basically, people are reacting out of fear, as in: They have seen unsanctioned camps all over in the areas where these two proposed sanctioned camps will be and they think we’re going to have more of the same. And frankly, they’re not the same."

Two safe-camping sites were recently proposed for the parking lots of the First Baptist Church on the 1300 block of Grant Street and the Denver Community Church Uptown location on the 1500 block of Pearl Street. Both would be run by nonprofit service providers; since they would be located on private property, Denver City Council would not have to approve the projects.

Earthlinks, the organization that wants to establish a safe-camping site at the First Baptist Church, has already submitted a temporary-use permit application to the city; zoning officials should decide whether to grant it within the week. That application lays out how the service provider plans to make the safe-camping site very different from unsanctioned encampments across Denver.

This safe-camping site model is based on best practices developed at one that's existed for years in Las Cruces, New Mexico. The First Baptist Church location will have one entry and exit point, and will be staffed 24/7.

Up to thirty individuals will be residents of the site, all of them women or trans individuals. They'll receive matching winterproof tents, as well as cots and sleeping bags, and will have to keep their belongings in their tents or in a small trunk. Two of the tents will be ADA-accessible. There will be three port-a-potties and three hand-washing stations on site, as well as Denver Fire Department-approved heaters. Toilets will be serviced on a daily basis, while a contractor will pick up trash weekly. A laundry and shower truck will also visit the site regularly.

Those staying at the site will have access to mental-health services, employment search resources and housing placement assistance, according to the Earthlinks "Operation Plan Overview."

The proposed guidelines are fairly strict. There will be quiet hours from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. No violence or weapons will be allowed, and on-site substance use is banned, as are drug dealing, theft and fires. Residents can be kicked out for violating these rules.

Owing to COVID restrictions, guests will not be allowed at the site. And in accord with state and local protocols, masks will be required in common areas, as will social distancing.

These rules and conditions should make the First Baptist Church site very different from the unsanctioned camp that had popped up nearby, on the 1300 block of Logan Street, after the City of Denver and State of Colorado combined to sweep a massive encampment in Lincoln Park in late July.

"I think the issue that is most important to all of us is safety and overall health, especially during a pandemic," says Mark Gallegos, an independent contractor who works as a barber at Razors Sharp Cuts, located just across the street from the First Baptist Church lot. Gallegos says that the Logan Street encampment created some major problems for Razors before the city dispersed it in early October.

"We had to call security to have people removed from the building that had maybe snuck in," says Gallegos, who notes that the shop's glass door was also smashed while the camp was there.

Gallegos is open to the establishment of a safe-camping site, if "it's done well and it's a situation where they have it controlled," he says.

"Living in Denver for twelve, almost thirteen years now, I've seen how Denver reacts and how they deal with the homeless situation, and I’ve never thought it was right," Gallegos adds. "I think if there’s a situation where there’s a little more safety around it, that’s something that I’d be okay with."

Nick List, who lives in an apartment building on Grant Street across from the proposed site, describes a chaotic scene when the Logan Street encampment was in place. "My problem with this summer is, the city couldn’t be bothered to bring in toilets, porta-potties or running water. It was ignored," he says, adding that he witnessed drug dealing and fights on a frequent basis.

The safe-camping site sounds like a much better idea, he says. "Having the services there, this is a good thing," he notes. "It’s an all-women’s camp, and there will be some regulation there. If nobody else in this city can step up and our leaders are so incompetent that they can’t solve this problem, then, yeah, Cap Hill will take it on."

Although neighborhood opposition eliminated two previous safe-camping site possibilities from consideration, the groups behind these two Capitol Hill proposals are feeling confident.

"We are moving forward at both sites," says Kathleen Van Voorhis of the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, one of the organizations pushing the Safe Outdoor Spaces program. Van Voorhis and others working on proposals will hold virtual community meetings about the sites on November 19 and 21.

The City of Denver just wrapped up its request-for-proposal process seeking more potential locations for safe- camping sites; it will make its selections in the coming weeks.
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.