Two Capitol Hill Church Lots Proposed for Safe-Camping Sites

The safe camping site initiative in Denver is close to becoming a reality.
The safe camping site initiative in Denver is close to becoming a reality. Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
Seven months after service providers first pitched the concept of setting up safe-camping sites in Denver, and four months after Mayor Michael Hancock finally agreed to the idea, proponents of the initiative have announced plans for two sites in the Capitol Hill neighborhood.

"They’re both in the parking lots and will be sheltered from a lot of mainstream traffic," says Kathleen Van Voorhis of the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, one of the main proponents of the Safe Outdoor Spaces initiative. "Both churches have pretty significant relationships with people in the neighborhood as well, so all of that will be positive moving forward."

Van Voorhis and the other service providers working on the project hope to have the sites operational by December. Their proposal has buy-in from the Capitol Hill United Neighborhoods and Uptown on the Hill organizations.

The site at the First Baptist Church, located at 1373 Grant Street, will have room for up to thirty tents that will house forty women and LGBTQ individuals. The second site, at the Denver Community Church, 1595 Pearl Street, will house up to fifty men and women, including couples.

Following a harm-reduction model, the sites will cater to people currently sheltering outdoors using tents. The sites will be stocked with new tents, cots, sleeping bags, storage containers, towels and hygiene products. They'll also be staffed, with rules and guidelines for residents; those staying there will have access to employment navigation, housing assistance and mental health resources.

Councilman Chris Hinds, whose district includes the two church properties, wasn't aware of the proposal when contacted on November 2 and says he can't comment specifically on it, but adds that he's supportive of safe outdoor spaces in general.

Van Voorhis notes that Hinds "has been a wonderful supporter of the Safe Outdoor Spaces" project and has "really seen the need for and wanted to help move along the idea."

There will be virtual community forums to discuss the site proposals on November 19 and November 21.

"We're looking forward to having those community conversations and moving the understanding into a more positive light of why these are so successful and so necessary," says Van Voorhis. She's talking about not if, but when the sites come online, showing a level of confidence that hasn't accompanied past proposals.

What's different this time is that both sites are on private land rather than city property, and neither will need the approval of Denver City Council. Instead, they simply require a sign-off by the city's zoning administrator.

Both churches are zoned under the old zoning code. Owing to stipulations attached to the current Denver zoning code, passed by council in 2010, the zoning status of properties still falling under the old code couldn't be altered, and that meant the type of temporary-use permit needed for a safe-camping site was out of reach for these locations. But last month, council passed a measure that gives the zoning administrator authority to approve temporary-use permits for properties zoned under the old code.

That cleared the way for these two sites, and more are likely to be coming.

At the end of October, the Hancock administration issued a request for proposals for safe-camping site locations and service providers to run these sites; about $500,000 will go to the sites selected through this RFP process.

When Hancock announced his support for the establishment of safe-camping sites in early July, he said he was willing to allow for three sites of up to sixty people each. But the administration seems more flexible now.

"I think the 'up to sixty people' is certainly something that [the mayor] had seen from other cities about size that may be most advantageous. That said, we’re going to look at what proposals people bring forward," says Britta Fisher, executive director of the Department of Housing Stability. "Maybe somebody has a proposal for a seventy-person site and it makes sense. We’re not going to say no to what's out there."

Those involved with the RFP process will also consider safe-parking sites for those experiencing homelessness but still in possession of a car.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised that during a pandemic, municipalities should not disperse encampments unless housing is available, to avoid spreading the coronavirus. But Denver has continued to sweep camps, and with the weather getting colder and COVID numbers peaking, service providers would like to see as many of these sites as possible, and soon.

"There’s more homeless on the street in Denver than we’ve ever seen," concludes Van Voorhis.
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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.