Safe-Camping Site on West Eighth Avenue Won't Reopen After Fire

A fire damaged 16 tents at a safe-camping site at 780 Elati Street.
A fire damaged 16 tents at a safe-camping site at 780 Elati Street. Emily Ferguson
After a fire destroyed sixteen tents on the night of September 17, the Colorado Village Collaborative has decided not to reopen its safe-camping site at 780 Elati Street, on a Denver Health-owned parking lot.

"Since we have found safe, dignified housing for those who were residing at this, it would not serve our community members well to uproot them to return to a location that is soon to close," says Jennifer Forker with the Colorado Village Collaborative.

The CVC had already planned on relocating the individuals staying at the Elati Street location to a new safe-camping site, at 4685 Peoria Street in the Montbello neighborhood, by year's end. That new site will be on the parking lot of the Arie P. Taylor Municipal Center, which comprises a Denver police district headquarters, a DMV branch and a section of Denver Human Services. Denver City Council has already approved the lease agreement for the site.

The fire destroyed the belongings of sixteen individuals, but no one was injured, and the fire was contained to the Denver Health lot, according to Forker. That safe-camping site catered to Native American individuals, a population that experiences homelessness at a disproportionate rate in Denver. The 37 people who had been staying there are now sheltering in other safe-camping sites run by the CVC.

"We were fortunate that this incident was contained rapidly, and we are grateful to our La Alma Lincoln Park neighbors for their various levels of response and support," Forker says. "Some helped to prevent the spread of the fire; others showed up providing blankets, food and emotional support to our staff and community members that evening and in the days that followed. We are grateful for all this support and outpouring of care."

Forker adds: "We’d like to assure our community members, neighbors, partners and friends that while we had safety plans in place that worked, we are consulting with the Denver Fire Department and examining our site plans as well as our operating policies and procedures from top to bottom; we are prioritizing what we can do immediately as well as developing a longer-term plan to mitigate the chances of another fire."
A safe-camping site in Lincoln Park is moving to Montbello.
Courtesy of Jennifer Forker
The Denver Fire Department has been investigating the cause of the fire and is expected to release a report later this week, according to John Chism, a public information officer with DFD.

As with some of its other sites, the CVC ran into initial opposition from a handful of neighbors when plans became public for the site at 780 Elati Street late last year. The site is located just feet away from a home, and some nearby residents filed appeals with the city. But the permit was approved.

There were other problems with the site, though. The lot was dirt, not paved, resulting in muddy tents on rainy and snowy days. Dust was also a challenge. Given the poor conditions, the CVC opted not to renew its one-year lease with Denver Health, and decided to establish a site in Montbello instead.

The CVC also runs a safe-camping site next to the Denver Human Services building in the Clayton neighborhood and co-manages a safe-camping site with the St. Francis Center in the Barnum neighborhood, just off Federal Boulevard. The organization's longtime leader, Cole Chandler, left the CVC over the summer to take a newly created job as director of homelessness initiatives at the Colorado Department of Human Services.

The city's first safe-camping site opened in December 2020, after Mayor Michael Hancock reversed course on his opposition to such facilities. His proposed 2023 budget, which Denver City Council will vote on later this fall, earmarks $7.8 million of American Rescue Plan Act money for safe-camping sites in Denver for 2023 and 2024.
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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.

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