Home, Sweat Home: Building a Safe-Camping Site in Denver

Grey Waletich has led the construction on safe-camping sites in Denver.
Grey Waletich has led the construction on safe-camping sites in Denver. Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
On the first Friday in December, Grey Waletich ran from one group to another in the parking lot of the Denver Human Services building at 3815 Steele Street, sharing details of the day's plan to build out the city's sixth safe-camping site.

"We try to make most sites work. There's not a ton of sites out there to work with. We have to be super-creative," says Waletich, a 29-year-old who was previously a toy designer and now designs safe-camping site layouts as part of her work for Radian, a nonprofit architecture and urban design group.

The Denver Human Services site in the Clayton neighborhood, which has the capacity for fifty residents and is slated to open on December 14, marks the first time that a safe-camping site has been set up on city-owned land. But while the landlord is unique, the process for establishing the location — which will offer uniform ice-fishing tents and centralized access to sanitation and services — follows a formula similar to what's been used at Denver's other sites.

"The genesis is me having conversations with landowners — and that’s something I’m trying to do all the time — and then ultimately going out and looking at a piece of land with Grey and then Grey saying, 'I’m going to put this on paper,'" says Cole Chandler, executive director of the Colorado Village Collaborative, the nonprofit that has established all but one of the safe-camping sites in Denver.

After Waletich comes up with a conceptual design, Radian and the CVC meet with city officials to talk about permitting of the site. The permitting requirements are fairly robust; the team has to check off boxes related to plumbing, electricity, zoning and fire department guidelines.

"Permitting can take two to three weeks, but we've gotten that down to a few days," says Waletich.
click to enlarge A lot of wood goes into making the platforms for the tents. - CONOR MCCORMICK-CAVANAGH
A lot of wood goes into making the platforms for the tents.
Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
"At some point, enough things have come together between a landowner being agreeable, the site sort of working from a logistics perspective, the indication being there that permitting would be likely, and having things clear to go on a neighborhood engagement timeline that we start to announce a site, we start to engage neighbors, and we host a community engagement meeting, and we host volunteer links for people to sign up and get connected to build," adds Chandler.

In the case of the Denver Human Services site, Denver City Council also had to approve the lease, since it's for city-owned land.

The community-engagement aspect involves first meeting with registered neighborhood organizations, then eventually placing fliers on doors of nearby residents. After that, the CVC hosts virtual meetings with neighbors interested in learning more about what the site will be like. Although many residents have welcomed safe-camping sites to their neighborhoods, others have opposed the sites and have been upset to discover that the CVC is not asking for permission, but plans to set up the site whether or not they approve. But while the CVC works to mitigate their concerns, sometimes that's not enough; neighbors of the new site in the Lincoln Park neighborhood have appealed that zoning permit.
click to enlarge The porta-potties arrived midway through the day. - CONOR MCCORMICK-CAVANAGH
The porta-potties arrived midway through the day.
Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
While the CVC works with the community, Waletich works on the procurement of supplies, such as wood, insulation, wiring, porta-potties and ice-fishing tents.

Waletich and the CVC schedule approximately two weeks for construction of the site. The weekends are the most labor-intensive periods, with hundreds of volunteers coming out to help.

One of the volunteers at the Denver Human Services site is Ryan Hoeft, the chief financial officer of BOA, a Denver-based company that got its start designing more convenient snowboard boot-lacing systems.
click to enlarge Hundreds of volunteers help build the sites. - CONOR MCCORMICK-CAVANAGH
Hundreds of volunteers help build the sites.
Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
"I see a tremendous amount of value in what they're doing," says Hoeft, who recently joined the board of the CVC.

About 25 volunteers from BOA help at the site over the course of the weekend. One of them is Jim Hannifin, who used to own Ready Man Labor, a temporary employment agency. "I heard about the St. Francis Center looking for donations for safe outdoor spaces and volunteers for all the setups," he says.

Hannifin has helped out at all of Denver's six sites; he even worked on the model set up in fall 2020 before the first sites went live last December. "These have gotten smoother, for sure," Hannifin notes.

One of her favorite parts of the setup, Waletich says, is "working directly with residents, hearing what's working for them and not working for them."

After getting feedback from residents at other sites, Waletich and her team are now placing insulation in the platforms for the tents. That way, heat will be retained in the winter and the tents will stay cooler in the summer.

After construction is complete, city officials will inspect the site to make sure that everything meets code and is safe. After that, residents can move in.

Many of the people coming to the Denver Human Services site will be coming from the facility next to Park Hill United Methodist Church. That site will shut down later this month, under its six-month lease agreement. The contract for the DHS site runs for one year with the chance for two six-month renewals. The other residents of the Denver Human Services site will be unsheltered individuals referred by street-outreach workers.
The finished product: This site in Park Hill will close this month. - EVAN SEMÓN
The finished product: This site in Park Hill will close this month.
Evan Semón
Chandler notes that his organization has a $3.9 million operating budget for four sites in 2022. "It comes out to right around a million dollars per site per year," says Chandler. "It depends on if we’re using all new materials and whatnot. We typically budget around $160,000 per site for startup. That’s like if you’re going all in with all new tents, all new lumber, all new electrical.... On this budget, I think I'm right at $1,000 per person, served monthly, including startup."

The biggest startup costs are electrical work and setup. The largest ongoing cost is staffing; the CVC staffs each site with eight full-time employees.

But the effort and costs pay off with a "really positive environment," Chandler says. "We build these things with a lot of positivity."
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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.