Lincoln Park Safe-Camping Site a Tough Sell for Some Neighbors

The Gonzales home in Lincoln Park.
The Gonzales home in Lincoln Park. Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
Davida Gonzales, a resident of Lincoln Park for the past fifty years, received an unwelcome surprise in mid-October: She'd soon become the next-door neighbor of a safe-camping site for people experiencing homelessness.

"I was devastated," she recalls. "I’ve been retired now for two years. I don’t want to have to go out and look out my door, look out my window, and see all these tents." Gonzales, who is 69, lives with her husband in a home adjacent to the Denver Health-owned parking lot at West Eighth Avenue and Elati Street that will become a safe-camping site for fifty people later this month.

"I’ve worked with the homeless my whole life," she continues. "I worked at a nonprofit serving homeless, my husband worked at a nonprofit for serving homeless. We understood the need to have a site for them. But this is not the right site."
click to enlarge Larry and Davida Gonzales live next to the proposed safe-camping site. - CONOR MCCORMICK-CAVANAGH
Larry and Davida Gonzales live next to the proposed safe-camping site.
Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
City officials, service providers and even registered neighborhood organizations have hailed the safe camping-site model, operational in Denver since last December, as a major success. They argue that although safe-camping sites aren't a permanent fix for homelessness, the sites — which include uniform tents, staffing and centralized access to services and sanitation — are an important intermediary step to help get people off the streets and into housing.

The safe-camping site in Lincoln Park, which will focus on Denver's Native American homeless population, will be the city's fifth. The first two went live in church parking lots in Capitol Hill and Uptown last December. Next came sites in a Regis University campus parking lot and next to Park Hill United Methodist Church in June.

The announcement of the proposed sites in Uptown, Capitol Hill and South Park Hill all generated opposition, with the strongest coming from a group of Park Hill residents who administratively challenged and then sued over the safe-camping site in their neighborhood. That lawsuit remains pending.

But the Regis University site generated little controversy, and the school even agreed to add three more months to the site's six-month lease so that it extends through March 2022.

Pushback is par for the course, says Cole Chandler, executive director of the Colorado Village Collaborative, which ran the site in Uptown and now manages the sites at Regis and in Park Hill.

"We’ve heard a lot of what we’re used to hearing from neighbors, and that is, 'This is a good idea. It just shouldn’t be here.' We expect that, and frankly, that isn’t really a critique that we can take too seriously. I think one of the other things that I'm hearing is, 'Hey, there’s children that live in this neighborhood. There’s schools nearby.' And this time around, we’re able to say that we’ve safely operated a safe outdoor space on a preschool campus and a college campus," Chandler says, in a nod to both Regis and the lot at Park Hill United Methodist Church, which houses a preschool. "That isn’t something that we’re overly concerned about this time around. But certainly we want to put proper controls in place, just like always."
click to enlarge This parking lot in Lincoln Park will soon become a safe-camping site. - CONOR MCCORMICK-CAVANAGH
This parking lot in Lincoln Park will soon become a safe-camping site.
Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
The lease agreement with Denver Health is for one year, with the opportunity for two six-month renewals. On October 20, the CVC handed out fliers to homes and businesses within a ten-block radius of the site describing the deal; on October 21, the CVC, in partnership with Denver Health, announced the proposed site.

Gonzales and other neighbors complained that they felt blindsided by the proposal. When she got the news, Gonzales even drove by the Regis site to get a feel for the project.

"So far, the public relations rollout has gone pretty poorly, ridiculously poorly," says Christine Sprague, president of the La Alma-Lincoln Park Neighborhood Association. Sprague met with the Colorado Village Collaborative a few weeks prior to the announcement of the site in mid-October. "I did say this community is not going to be probably very supportive," she adds.

"I was hoping the CVC would kind of learn from their previous site installs, because there’s so many myths and so many misconceptions that I thought, 'Well, they’d be like, that didn’t work out very well,' because neighbors were suing the CVC and very upset," says neighbor Ann Nguyen, an urban designer and landscape architect. "I think the community is just overwhelmed in general. I think that’s the feeling of this new model: that they don’t understand and need a lot more information than what a flier is giving them and more than one meeting to get answers. I think it’s a lot to process."

The site's designer has visited Gonzales at her home several times to talk about how the plan can accommodate her concerns. Adaptations so far include pushing the front fence back from Elati, adding more buffer space, and moving the porta-potties and smoking section as far from Gonzales's house as possible; they're not enough.

"Basically, nobody would want it this close to their home," Gonzales says. "Less than six feet away. The fence is not going to protect the noise. It’s not the plans...it's a sad situation for everybody."

The CVC plans to hold a virtual meeting with community members on November 3.

"I’ve played through in my mind a thousand different ways to roll out a project, and at times we’ve tried different ways," Chandler explains. "We had sites that didn’t go forward." Proposals to establish sites outside of the Denver Coliseum and in a public plaza in Five Points failed after neighbor opposition, for example. So far, all of the established sites have gone up on private property, which does not require a Denver City Council lease contract vote.

"I’ve just realized over time that clarity is kind, you know?" Chandler continues. "I’m trying to be as clear as possible and communicate as clearly as possible about a project that is going to happen and trying to talk about how can we make this work best for everybody and how can we be in communication going forward. I don’t believe that asking the neighbors for permission is really possible, for one. But also, I don’t believe it would deliver these critical services for our most marginalized community members."

"I think it's probably always the case that people want to have more advance notice," says Councilwoman Jamie Torres, who supports the project and the safe-camping site model in general and has been talking with neighbors. "Raising that expectation can really [create] pushback, particularly when I think there are neighbors for some of these projects who would never want to see it built no matter what the public engagement was. That's never an excuse to skirt it."

But since the Denver Health parking lot is not owned by the city, this lease did not require a Denver City Council vote or intense public engagement, she notes.
click to enlarge The city swept this Lincoln Park encampment at the end of August. - CONOR MCCORMICK-CAVANAGH
The city swept this Lincoln Park encampment at the end of August.
Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
Neighbors are now voicing their concerns not just about the site, but other problems that stem from having Denver Health in the vicinity, especially when a newly released patient commits a crime.

"We should and will sit down and have conversations about that," says Robin Wittenstein, the CEO of Denver Health, adding that "patients are actually free to leave our institution when they want to. We are not a jail. We don’t keep patients prisoner. If somebody wants to leave our institution, they are actually free to do so."

As for the safe-camping site, she says, "This happened to be a parking lot that is used for limited overflow, and really, our sense was it would be better utilized for a safe outdoor space and would contribute more overall to the mission of the organization."

Wittenstein foresees significant employment opportunities at Denver Health for residents of the site, a concept Chandler embraces. "There’s a lot of job opportunities at Denver Health. There’s maintenance professionals, janitorial jobs, trash collection and pick-up jobs," he notes. "That’s one of the things that we’re excited about making available to residents, too."

But the CVC is hoping to start with a safe spot for some of the estimated 1,500 people living without shelter in Denver, including Native Americans who are significantly overrepresented in that population.

On August 31, the City of Denver swept a homeless encampment outside of the Four Winds American Indian Council at West Fifth Avenue and Bannock Street. In the run-up to the sweep, residents of the encampment as well as leadership from Four Winds had proposed the idea of setting up an official Native-preference safe-camping site. The Lincoln Park site will provide culturally sensitive services for its Indigenous residents, the CVC notes.

"There's still folks waiting for what's the option of how we can get back together as a community," Torres says, pointing out that there's a "timeliness" to getting those that were swept into the Lincoln Park site.  "We've been spending quite a lot of attention on decolonizing this neighborhood, because this was where Fort Weld was, where peace negotiations were crafted and abandoned before the Sand Creek Massacre."

Months after those negotiations, more than 200 members of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes were massacred by volunteers led by Colonel John Chivington in a camp on Sand Creek that they thought was under the protection of the U.S. Army. The 157th anniversary of the massacre will be marked on November 30.

The Lincoln Park neighborhood is a largely working-class Latino, Chicano and Indigenous neighborhood, Torres says. "I don't want us to forget that."
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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.