On a recent weekday afternoon, residents of the safe-camping site set up in a church parking lot at 16th Avenue and Pearl Street sat in chairs placed in a semi-circle, cracking jokes, telling stories and smoking cigarettes.
The group varied widely in age, but its members shared a positive energy. One came out of her tent wearing a Cat in the Hat costume; others played fetch with a pet dog. While they chatted, a few talked about working on their sobriety, while others related how their feelings of anxiety had dropped since they'd been sleeping at the safe-camping site next to the Denver Community Church.
"I feel safe here," said 42-year-old Alan Mayfield, who has been homeless for a decade and was one of the forty men and women who moved into this new site run by the nonprofit Colorado Village Collaborative last month. "It's given me peace of mind."
Specifically, he no longer has to bounce from one encampment to the next in order to avoid a sweep. "I don't have to worry about it at all," Mayfield added.
Early on during the COVID-19 pandemic, service providers began lobbying Mayor Michael Hancock's administration to greenlight the establishment of safe-camping sites in Denver. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had been advising municipalities not to sweep encampments, so as not to spread COVID. By setting up safe-camping sites, the city could stay in line with CDC regulations and also ensure that individuals living in unsheltered settings could access services, they argued.
Although it took a while, by July Hancock had come around and agreed to let service providers set up such sites. After a few false starts stymied by neighbor opposition and waning political support, service providers finally set up two spots in December.
Cuica Montoya, the site manager at 16th and Pearl, knew Mayfield and some of the other residents during her work as a peer navigator at the Denver Public Library. She and site staff met the others, many of whom are chronically homeless, through outreach they've done at encampments in recent months.
There have been some hiccups in the month since this site opened. Staff had to kick out two men who were sharing a tent and failed to observe the prohibition against fighting.
But there have also been some real achievements. "I knew in my heart that it was going to be a success," Montoya recalls. "But it was a much greater success than what I could have anticipated."
Two residents have been connected to housing and are waiting for their paperwork to be processed. Another resident is brainstorming creating a nonprofit that would repair old RVs and provide homes. And then there are other residents, including Matt Rigg, who are working on staying sober.
Rigg, 41, has been homeless and struggling with drug addiction for years. In late December, while living in this safe-camping site, he decided to get sober. "I feel like I'm presented with an opportunity to advance myself," Rigg says, praising his fellow residents for helping him get through difficult times, especially when he was in withdrawal. "It's so awesome that I have support, that I have people to love me when I'm not able to love myself."
And despite some opposition from neighbors who said they didn't want a safe-camping site in the Uptown neighborhood, Montoya says she's gotten no complaints since it actually opened. As Mayfield notes, residents work together to ensure that rules are followed. There's no drug use allowed in the open; what someone does inside his own tent is his own prerogative, Mayfield says, calling the protocol a harm-reduction approach.
"Staff here, they treat us like people," he adds.
The tent encampment that had been located across the street is gone; the people staying there are either now residents of this site or decided to leave, knowing that the police would soon tell them to move. As a result, the neighborhood is less chaotic than it was before the site opened.
That was just a week after the city's first safe-camping site opened, in a parking lot next to the First Baptist Church, just south of the Capitol. That spot is reserved for women and trans individuals. Operations there have been going well, too, staffers say.
"I was lucky enough to be able to take a couple shifts down there last week. The women are very appreciative of it," says Kathleen Van Voorhis of the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, an organization that set up the site in collaboration with the nonprofit Earthlinks. "We have women who are very excited to be on a housing list. We have women who are working, who are newly homeless,"
"We definitely have a significant population of domestic-violence victims on site. We’ve been very blessed that we’ve had trauma-informed care on site," Van Voorhis adds.
Particularly on the morning of December 30, when one resident was found dead in her tent. The cause of death of the 34-year-old woman is still being investigated, according to the Denver Office of the Medical Examiner.
Since the two safe-camping sites combined have a total capacity of seventy, the City of Denver is currently recruiting service providers for more sites.
Meanwhile, the Colorado Village Collaborative says it has a green light from the city to start setting up a third site on private land. The St. Francis Center will be staffing it, according to Montoya, who declined to say where it will be located.
But one thing is certain: It will be filled fast.
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