In a 10-1 vote, Denver City Council approved allotting $900,000 to existing and future safe-camping sites for people experiencing homelessness through a contract with the nonprofit Colorado Village Collaborative.
"I have heard from massive numbers of my constituents that they think this would be the direction that would be better to go than what we’ve had with unregulated camps," Councilwoman Robin Kniech said during the February 16 council meeting before voting in favor of the proposal.
The money will help fund a safe-camping site opened in December by the Colorado Village Collaborative in the parking lot of the Denver Community Church at East 16th Avenue and Pearl Street, as well as a future safe-camping site at an undetermined location. A second site that opened in December is located in the parking lot of the First Baptist Church at East 14th Avenue and Grant Street; it, too, is privately funded and run by a nonprofit.
Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer was the only member to vote against the funding, arguing that Denver residents already rejected the idea of urban camping in May 2019, when voters overwhelmingly opposed Initiative 300, which would have repealed the city's urban camping ban, among other things.
“I think we’re sending mixed messages and breaking the trust of our voters, all the while causing confusion for our most vulnerable citizens," Sawyer said. "This is not the only solution to this problem. This is the only solution we’re being presented."
As the council meeting took place over Zoom, Cole Chandler, director of the Colorado Village Collaborative, responded to Sawyer's argument. "Safe outdoor spaces are not what was on the ballot when Initiative 300 came forward," he pointed out. "Those are two entirely different things. This is a resource-rich, service-rich encampment model that’s fully managed by staff 24 hours a day."
The approximately seventy residents of the two safe-camping sites sleep in ice-fishing tents and use heated blankets and floor pads to stay warm. The residents have access to porta-potties and mobile showers, and can connect with service providers on site. Most important, while they're at the sites, they don't have to worry about being forced to move because of an encampment sweep.
"We have been able to support on-site case management, outreach, medical and educational services, just to name a few," says Matt Lynn, a spokesperson for the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, which is running the First Baptist Church safe-camping site in partnership with the nonprofit Earthlinks. During the bitter cold earlier this week, both churches opened their doors to allow residences access to indoor spaces.
The February 16 vote marks the first time that Denver City Council has allotted money for specific safe-camping sites. In October 2020, council approved earmarking $650,000 to go toward studying and establishing safe-camping sites in Denver.
CVC, which also operates tiny home villages in Globeville and Cole for people experiencing homelessness, has been searching for a site for a third safe-camping site with room for up to sixty people, which it will run in partnership with the St. Francis Center. Since the six-month leases with both churches are expiring at the end of May, CVC and the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado are also looking for places where they can relocate the existing safe-camping sites.
While Mayor Michael Hancock was initially skeptical of allowing safe-camping sites in Denver when service providers first pitched the proposal to him back in April 2020, city staffers are now positive about the concept.
"We’re hearing a lot of good things coming out of the [camps]," Chris Conner, director of homelessness resolution for the city's Department of Housing Stability, said at a February 3 council committee meeting.
"The successes are far greater than what I expected," added Cuica Montoya, who manages the Denver Community Church site, at the same meeting. "It’s been a very exciting environment just in general."
Some of the successes at the Denver Community Church site include five residents moving into tiny homes, four residents reconnecting with the Department of Veterans Affairs, and fourteen residents receiving dental health services. And so far, no residents at either site have tested positive for COVID-19.
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