Service Providers Explore New Paths to Safe Camping Site

Homeless service providers want to set up a temporary safe site for up to 100 people.
Homeless service providers want to set up a temporary safe site for up to 100 people. Evan Semon
On April 23, a coalition of Denver service providers pitched the idea of establishing a temporary safe site where up to 100 homeless individuals could set up their tents to the Hancock administration.

The site would have bathrooms, sinks and even COVID-19 testing to ensure that people are staying safe during the pandemic. It would be an alternative for homeless individuals who are reluctant to enter into the large shelters at the National Western Center and Denver Coliseum but not supposed to camp on city sidewalks, where many tents have sprung up over the past two months. Similar projects have been launched in such places as Tampa Bay, Portland and Aspen to help homeless individuals.

But over two weeks later, the coalition is still waiting for an answer from the Hancock administration. And now they're ready to move ahead with the project anyway.

While the initial pitch asked for financial assistance from the city, its proponents say they've already locked up enough commitments from donors to fund the entire venture. They've also identified potential sites for the safe space, and are in conversation with landowners.

"At this point, we don’t expect that the city is going to provide any resources toward this. Our hope is that they would provide some regulatory pathway toward establishing the space," explains Cole Chandler, director of the Colorado Village Collaborative, which is also behind the initiative.

Chandler expects to speak again with city officials early next week. They'll be joined on a phone call with staffers from the St. Francis Center day shelter and the Salvation Army, the two organizations that would handle outreach and case management at the safe site.

The initiative has support from all the major homeless-service providers in Denver. It also has support from a majority of Denver City Council; eight council members, plus a handful of state legislators from Denver, sent a letter to Mayor Michael Hancock on April 24 asking him to approve the plan.

"The Temporary Safe Outdoor Space could serve 50 to 100 individuals at one time, with a likely greater reach as individuals are screened and referred to other medical care, hotels, or even housing solutions making space for new occupants. That is 50, 100 or more lives that can be protected directly. Reduced transmission will matter not only to them, but to the 4+ individuals anyone with the virus could infect," the letter states.

Although the Hancock administration has not officially responded to the proposal, during an April 24 press conference, the mayor expressed skepticism about the idea.

"We are working very hard to continue to create indoor opportunities for residents of Denver who are experiencing homelessness," Hancock 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."

But now the city appears to be shifting its stance, pointing to what it's done rather than what might be prohibited. "During this pandemic, our focus in Denver has been working to connect people to vital services and support. We’ve been working extensively with our local service providers and have been able to open two auxiliary shelters, both of which provide guests with at least 60 square feet of space each, room to have meals and relax while social distancing, and greater access to medical care. We have also established a network of activated respite hotel rooms to support those who are medically required to isolate," says Erika Martinez, a spokesperson for the city.

"Over the last several weeks, the city has worked at great lengths to find ways to continue to put people indoors," agrees Chandler. But he sees room to work with the city on the safe camping site, and has the sense that it will "essentially agree to stand aside and allow us to stand it up. I still feel like there’s a path toward that, and hope to have clarity on that once we meet with them."

Those living on the streets haven't been nearly as well connected to services, including testing, as those staying at the National Western Center and Denver Coliseum, where there's COVID-19 testing available on site. Of the 610 people have been tested at either of those shelters or the Stout Street Health Center, 201 have tested positive for COVID-19.

Not only are services lacking on the streets, but the encampments that have sprung up around Five Points have also been subject to orders to move along. On April 30 and May 7, the city dispersed encampments in order to clean up the streets, sidewalks and grass; people were allowed to return after the cleanup actions.

But Chandler wants to create a place where people can stay outside and not have to worry about being asked to leave, while also having access to services: "What if we actually gave people a place to go?"
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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.