Last fall, Sean Smith, the sheriff of La Plata County, took action on his longstanding belief that homeless individuals in the county, particularly in Durango, needed a place where they could camp outdoors in peace.
The sheriff set up a permanent encampment for tents on 200 acres of unincorporated La Plata County land perched above the Las Animas River near the Purple Cliffs, a few miles south of downtown Durango. Three dozen people moved in initially; there are now about 85 people living at the site. Residents receive daily food delivery and weekly water delivery, but not much else in terms of services.
Smith believed that his idea for an encampment complied with the law; he was guided by a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that found Boise, Idaho, would be engaging in unconstitutional actions if it continued to enforce its ban against homeless individuals camping even when the city didn't have enough shelter beds.
While Colorado falls under the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, Smith thought that because the U.S. Supreme Court had declined to review the lower court's findings, that Ninth Circuit ruling basically became the law of the land.
"I just took the position, 'Hey, this is the law, we’ve got to have a place.' And if we establish a place, then that allows me to make sure that camping doesn’t become widespread," explains Smith, who won a second term as sheriff two years ago.
The results have been positive for Durango and La Plata County as a whole, Smith says: "Our downtown businesses are reporting less of an impact from homelessness than they’ve seen in recent years. The neighbors don’t feel impacted. The parks don’t get overloaded with people hanging out at them during the day,"
Efforts to establish a second safe-camping site closer to downtown and services have been unsuccessful, however. While there's political will on the Durango City Council to set up such a spot, residents opposed the location initially proposed for the city: Over 820 people signed a petition objecting to placing a safe-camping site near the Greenmount Cemetery.
"Signing this petition will let the Durango City Council, as well as the La Plata County Commissioners, know that while you support providing adequate facilities for the unhoused in our community, you also wish to protect the view, as well as safety, security, and peace of mind of cemetery visitors, and ensure the protection and comfort of nearby neighborhoods, parks, businesses, and tourists," the petition reads.
Because of that opposition, Durango's city council recently scrapped the location. Nonprofit service providers say that they're still working with city officials on finding a solution.
While La Plata County is more than 300 miles away from the City and County of Denver, the safe-camping site project there provides something of a guide for ongoing efforts by Denver service providers and city officials to set up safe-camping sites.
Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, service providers approached Mayor Michael Hancock's administration with the idea of setting up official safe-camping sites in Denver under a proposed Safe Outdoor Spaces program. Unsanctioned encampments were growing around the city; rather than continue to sweep people living on the streets, proponents said, the city should provide them with a place to live where they could have access to services. These sites would also help the city abide by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, which recommend that municipalities not perform sweeps of encampments if housing is unavailable, in order to avoid spreading COVID-19. On July 1, Hancock finally announced his approval of the program.
The first two proposals for safe-camping sites in Denver failed, however, after both were opposed by neighbors.
"We've got two strikes on us and don't plan to get a third," says Cole Chandler, director of the Colorado Village Collaborative and one of the key proponents of the program.
To ensure that they don't strike out, the Colorado Village Collaborative and the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, the other primary organization behind the initiative, have started a citywide education campaign to help Denver residents understand exactly what a safe-camping site would entail.
They set up a model safe-camping site in a church parking lot in the Capitol Hill neighborhood earlier this month; around 200 people came out to visit the spot, including government leaders and elected officials. They saw the raised pallets that would keep tents warmer and other ways the safe-camping site would be an improvement over unsanctioned encampments.
"Clearly, the place is well thought out. I admire the simplicity," says Councilman Chris Hinds, whose district includes Capitol Hill, where many of the city's encampments are located.
While Chandler and his colleagues continue to look for a Safe Outdoor Spaces site, they're staying on the education push. Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca's office has begun sending out fliers that include facts about safe-camping sites, as well.
It was much easier for Smith to set up his first site. Since he could use a parcel of unincorporated La Plata County land, city politics didn't come into play. (The City of Denver and Denver County are physically one and the same, so there's a council rep for every spot in the county accountable to constituents.) And since the camp near Durango is relatively unpopulated, there were few neighbors to complain.
Early on in the pandemic, Pitkin County set up its own safe-camping site outside of Aspen, and that project has also gone fairly smoothly.
Councilwoman Stacie Gilmore, who represents far northeast Denver, thinks the city should look at working with neighboring municipalities and counties on a joint venture. "There's a lot of farmland along the I-70 corridor just outside of Denver," she points out. "Could we create a larger site and have a shuttle that would bring folks back and forth? Or could we set up some services on site to create a model?"
While Denver officials would like to have the safe-camping sites closer to services, there are already people staying in camps in more remote areas, including parks in Aurora and along the South Platte River — where they are visited by service providers. Those services could do the same at a safe-camping spot that's not centrally located, Gilmore suggests.
"I think we’ve got to start somewhere and show folks that this can be done," she says.
There's another big difference between La Plata County and Denver, though: Mayor Hancock does not view the city's sweeps of encampments as unconstitutional.
Since 2012, the City of Denver has had an urban camping ban on the books that officials use to prevent homeless individuals who are living outdoors from sheltering themselves using items such as sleeping bags or tents. In recent years, the controversial camping ban has been subject to multiple legal challenges, most recently a class-action suit tied to the sweeps.
But even without a definitive legal ruling, the city is moving ahead with the Safe Outdoor Spaces concept. As Britta Fisher, the executive director of the Department of Housing Stability says, "Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures."
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