Denver Service Providers Pitching "Safe Outdoor Space" for Homeless

Supporters of the proposal say that the unprecedented nature of the pandemic calls for bold action.
Supporters of the proposal say that the unprecedented nature of the pandemic calls for bold action. Evan Semón
Citing the threat posed by COVID-19 to the homeless community, Denver service providers are pitching the idea of establishing a temporary "safe outdoor space" to city officials.

"If we can provide them with hygiene and provide them with medical care and with testing and food and a safe area ensuring social distancing, we can not only keep them safe, but also keep the community safe," says Kathleen Van Voorhis of the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, part of a group of service organizations spearheading this proposal, which has been in the works for weeks.

So far, service providers have sent a letter to Mayor Michael Hancock and presented the proposal to his staff over the phone; they expect a response by the end of April. While the mayor's office has shown a reluctance in the past to move forward with any concept that appears to sanction people living outdoors, the group behind this proposal is hopeful that the unprecedented nature of the pandemic will motivate city leadership to agree to the initiative.

The proposal calls for establishing a safe site where up to 100 homeless residents can set up tents without fear of being displaced by encampment sweeps for the duration of the pandemic. Similar projects have been developed in response to the COVID-19 crisis in Tampa Bay, Portland and Aspen.

The location of such a site in Denver has not been determined. Nonprofit entities would staff and manage the area and provide case management, and faith groups would assist in providing food, tents and sleeping bags. Those pitching the proposal are hoping to get some financial assistance from the city, but also say that they can manage the funding themselves if the city says its budget is too tight. All of the major homeless service providers in Denver have signed on in support of the concept.

"This is a public-health crisis and we’re leaving people out on the streets who are infected and are going to become infected and are going to then need medical care, and it’s putting all of us at risk," says Cole Chandler, executive director of the Colorado Village Collaborative, one of the service providers pushing the idea. "What if we actually gave people a place to go?"

When he was asked about the possibility of a temporary safe camping site during the pandemic, Hancock appeared reluctant to approve such an initiative.

"We are working very hard to continue to create indoor opportunities for residents of Denver who are experiencing homelessness," he said. "At this time, we don’t see a reason for us to create outdoor sanctioned camp the city of Denver. We’re not going to move in that direction, but we are going to continue to work hard to create opportunities indoors for our residents."

Hancock offered that reply during his April 24 press conference on the extension of Denver's stay-at-home order until May 8; it's possible that he had not yet been briefed about this new proposal. But Britta Fisher, the head of Denver's Department of Housing Stability who'd heard about it the day before from proponents, offered this response later on April 24: "By getting people indoors, we’re not only providing supports to help achieve housing stability, we’re reducing the risk of harm through screening and medical/behavioral care. In just a few short weeks we have produced a 24/7 sheltering environment including existing shelters, the auxiliary shelters at the National Western Complex and Denver Coliseum, and hundreds of hotel rooms. We continue to build on this approach to meet the needs of our community."

Just as the city has pointed to public-health issues to explain some of its policies regarding the homeless, proponents of this new proposal say it's more about immediate public-health concerns than it is about providing a long-term solution to homelessness.

"This is not about the camping ban. It’s not about the prior debate. It’s about what is our health response. And that’s the focus of the conversation. We need to engage public-health officials in that," explains Denver City Councilwoman Robin Kniech.

Kniech says that the city has already made a good start by opening up large auxiliary shelters to ease crowding in existing shelters and securing hundreds of motel rooms for both infected and at-risk individuals.

On the night of April 23, 665 men stayed at the newly established shelter at the National Western Center, while 171 women were housed at the auxiliary shelter at the Denver Coliseum. And 355 hotel and motel rooms set aside for homeless individuals were occupied that night.

With the establishment of the auxiliary shelters, the Stout Street Health Center, which is run by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, is now doing testing at those facilities as well as its downtown clinic. Of the 409 individuals it has tested, 100 have tested positive for COVID-19. Establishing a temporary safe space where people can set up their tents, socially-distance and not worry about being displaced is the next logical step, the proponents of the proposal say.

"It is always better for people to be inside, but even with the most thorough and comprehensive shelter in Denver that we have open, not everyone’s coming inside. So that’s the reality," Kniech says.

While the proposal has been in the works for some time, there's new reason to move quickly. On April 23, Denver announced that on April 30, it will do a large-scale cleanup of a section of Five Points where encampments have cropped up.

"There’s an urgency for every cleanup every time," notes Kniech, "but the stakes are higher now."

The day that the city announced the planned sweep, Chandler and other stakeholders pitched their proposal to Fisher and Evan Dreyer, the mayor's deputy chief of staff. They explained that the creation of this temporary safe space, which would be staffed for much of the day and have security services at night, would both help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 among people experiencing homelessness and expand outreach to those currently not accessing services.

Outreach and case management would be handled by staff from the St. Francis Center day shelter and the Salvation Army, which both had representatives on the phone call. According to the proposal, guests would also receive "wellness screenings" on a daily basis, and be linked to hotel placement and health-care services, things already offered in the auxiliary shelters.

"What we’re really after is an equitable way to care for our neighbors who are still on the streets. We know that they don’t have equal access to the services that are being offered," Chandler says.

If the city is reluctant to move forward with this proposal, there needs to be an alternative, Kniech concludes: "If it’s not this plan, then it’s incumbent upon us as a city to come up with our own plan." 
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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.