Homeless

Faith Leaders Rally in Support of Park Hill Safe-Camping Site

Supporters of safe-camping sites gathered outside the Park Hill United Methodist Church on June 15.
Supporters of safe-camping sites gathered outside the Park Hill United Methodist Church on June 15. Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
Despite sweltering heat, more than 100 people gathered outside Park Hill United Methodist Church, at 5209 Montview Boulevard, during a multi-faith rally to show support for the congregation's decision to authorize a safe-camping site for people experiencing homelessness in its parking lot.

"We've got your back. We are with you, not 10 percent, but 110 percent," Abdur Rahim Ali, imam at the Northeast Denver Islamic Center, said during the June 15 rally.

Ali was joined by leaders of Christian and Jewish congregations, who shared testimony about the emphasis that their faiths place on helping the downtrodden. "We are commanded to welcome the stranger, and that's what we are doing here," said Eliot Baskin, an associate rabbi at Temple Emanuel.

Just days from now, the first residents should be moving into the safe-camping site being set up in the lot between Forest and Glencoe streets by the church, which shares a building with Temple Micah.
click to enlarge Park Hill United Methodist Church shares its building with Temple Micah. - CONOR MCCORMICK-CAVANAGH
Park Hill United Methodist Church shares its building with Temple Micah.
Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
Since word started spreading in early April that the Colorado Village Collaborative would be setting up a safe-camping site outside the church, neighbors have been split on the concept: some are vocally supportive, while others are vehemently opposed.

Five Park Hill residents even filed a lawsuit on May 6 in Denver District Court to block the establishment of the safe-camping site, expressing concerns about the safety of neighbors and potential nuisances that could arise from the facility..

Judge A. Bruce Jones dismissed the case on May 19, ruling that the plaintiffs had not exhausted all possible administrative remedies regarding their issues with the safe-camping site plan before heading to court.
click to enlarge Leaders from multiple faiths came out for the June 15 rally. - CONOR MCCORMICK-CAVANAGH
Leaders from multiple faiths came out for the June 15 rally.
Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
In particular, the five plaintiffs — Kurt Monigle, Dave Rodman, Jean-Baptiste Varnier, Justin Lovac and Blair Taylor — had not filed an appeal with the Denver Board of Adjustment for Zoning Appeals; they're taking that route now. The Board of Adjustment for Zoning Appeals has set a July 20 hearing for a general challenge to the Denver Zoning Administrator's right to allow safe-camping sites; the board has also set a hearing for a challenge to the Park Hill site for July 27.

In the meantime, up to forty people experiencing homelessness will be living in tents set up on the church's parking lot, which is surrounded by fencing to establish privacy for residents.

Those who spoke during the rally met the opposition head-on, even referencing the history of white flight from the Park Hill neighborhood decades ago when Black residents moved in.

"I have been disheartened as well by the hatred I've seen on social media and in news interviews," said Laura Rossbert, a United Methodist minister associated with Together Colorado, which helped organize the event.
click to enlarge Up to forty people will live in tents in the parking lot outside the church. - CONOR MCCORMICK-CAVANAGH
Up to forty people will live in tents in the parking lot outside the church.
Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
Aside from the Park Hill site, which was to open mid-June but will now open next week, the Colorado Village Collaborative operates a newly opened safe-camping site in a parking lot on Regis University's campus. Thirty-five people experiencing homelessness are currently living at that site, which has generated little to no controversy among neighbors. The two sites will have a combined capacity of 100; Denver has an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 people currently experiencing unsheltered homelessness.

The safe-camping site model is relatively new for Denver, as nonprofit service providers and government officials pushed for the establishment of the sites early in the COVID-19 pandemic. Although initially reluctant, Mayor Michael Hancock eventually came around to the idea last summer.

After a few false starts caused by neighbor opposition and waning political support for certain locations, the Colorado Village Collaborative and other nonprofits set up the first safe-camping sites in Denver last December. Those two sites — one located in the Uptown neighborhood and another in Capitol Hill — have since shut down; they'd been on six-month leases. Many of the residents of the now-closed sites have moved into the Regis University site, which, like the Park Hill site, has a lease that runs through the end of the year.
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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.