Safe-Camping Site Coming to Lincoln Park Neighborhood

This parking lot in Lincoln Park will soon become a safe camping site.
This parking lot in Lincoln Park will soon become a safe camping site. Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
Service providers plan to open a new safe-camping site in the Lincoln Park neighborhood on November 10, this one a Native-inclusive space.

The site, which will include uniform tents and centralized access to sanitation and services, will be located in a Denver Health-owned parking lot on the southeast corner of West Eighth Avenue and Elati Street, and will have room for fifty individuals experiencing homelessness. The site is close to the Four Winds American Indian Council community center, where the city swept an encampment at the end of August.

"The City and County of Denver has a compelling governmental interest in ensuring adequate housing for Native people due to the history of broken treaties and land dispossession, as well as disproportionate levels of Native American poverty, homelessness, and homeless mortality in Denver. We’re glad that our unhoused relatives’ advocacy has resulted in this expansion, and we hope our community sees the same support for long-term solutions in the future," says Mateo Parsons, chair of the Four Winds American Indian Council board.

In the runup to the sweep, residents and Four Winds leadership met with Mayor Michael Hancock virtually to ask the city to cancel the sweep and provide a "Native-preference" outdoor space for those staying in the encampment, which had developed a reputation as a safe place for Indigenous individuals. Native Americans are significantly overrepresented in metro Denver's homeless population.

"None of this would have happened without the grassroots leadership of unhoused Native people who started the Denver Indigenous Refugee Camp outside of Four Winds American Indian Council and decided to organize and advocate for a new Safe Outdoor Space that provides culturally relevant services for unhoused Native people,” Parsons adds.
click to enlarge The city swept this encampment at West Fifth Avenue and Bannock Street on August 31. - CONOR MCCORMICK-CAVANAGH
The city swept this encampment at West Fifth Avenue and Bannock Street on August 31.
Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
The site will be run by the Colorado Village Collaborative, which is operating the city's two current safe-camping sites, one in Park Hill and the other at Regis University.  "I think this is an awesome partnership," says Cole Chandler, CVC director. "All these different organizations with different missions, representing different communities, coming together on a project, that's a pretty cool thing. I'm just excited about what that represents for our city and where we're going."

In addition to Regis, three churches have hosted safe-camping sites since they began operating in Denver in December 2020. Now Denver Health joins the ranks.

“At Denver Health, it is our mission to provide high-quality medical care for everyone, regardless of their ability to pay. But we know that clinical care alone only accounts for a portion of a person’s health. As an anchor institution, Denver Health must invest beyond its own walls to make a positive impact on the health of people in our community, because to truly care for the whole person, we must address all social determinants of health,” says Robin Wittenstein, CEO of Denver Health. The site has a one-year lease on the lot, with the option for two six-month extensions.

The CVC began reaching out to Lincoln Park neighbors on October 20. "We hit doors with fliers within a four-block radius around the site, dropped off about a thousand fliers with a team of about a dozen volunteers," Chandler says.

The Regis site has been operational since June; the university's lease with the CVC has been re-upped for three more months, through the end of March. According to Jenna Farley, a spokesperson for Regis, the thinking was, "Let's go through the winter months and into the spring because that will make it so much easier to relocate. We didn't want people to be moving out in the middle of the holiday season. We were really thoughtful on that."

The safe-camping site in the parking lot of the Park Hill United Methodist Church in South Park Hill also opened in June; even before it opened, a group of neighbors sued to block it from becoming operational. That lawsuit failed because the neighbors hadn't exhausted all of their potential administrative remedies, notably an appeal to the Board of Adjustment for Zoning. The board rejected two appeals from the Park Hill neighbors, ultimately leading to a second suit in Denver District Court that remains pending.

The Park Hill lease is up in December; the CVC plans to announce another site for the area in November.

And there should be plenty of funding for that fourth site, as the City of Denver is poised to earmark $4 million in American Rescue Plan Act money for safe-camping sites. The only obstacle to expansion could be Initiative 303, which is on the November ballot in Denver; while it would cap the number of safe-camping sites allowed on public property at four, there would be no limit to sites on private property.

Denver has challenged that initiative in court, although the complaint is focusing on another provision of the measure requiring the city to respond to complaints about unofficial encampments within 72 hours; that contradicts a current order from a federal judge, the city points out. A hearing is set for October 29.
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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.