Neighborhood Groups Suggest How to Make Safe-Camping Sites Happen

Safe-camping site proponents recently set up this model to help dispel misconceptions.
Safe-camping site proponents recently set up this model to help dispel misconceptions. Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
Winter is fast approaching, and the City of Denver and service providers still have not established the first safe-camping site for those experiencing homelessness.

Concerned over the slowdown of the Safe Outdoor Spaces program, four neighborhood organizations recently sent a letter to Mayor Michael Hancock and Denver City Council with their ideas for how to push the safe-camping concept into reality.
The October 12 letter from the leadership of Capitol Hill United Neighborhoods, Colfax Business Improvement District, Golden Triangle Creative District and Uptown on the Hill suggests eight ways that the city can move the project forward. The four organizations represent areas that have seen significant numbers of homeless individuals camping on the street in recent months. Their ideas:

Set up a request for proposal process

"We are aware of a number of organizations, both nonprofit and forprofit, who have the facilities, capacity, know- how and active interest in supporting the city’s efforts to tackle homelessness and mitigate the concerns brought on by encampments," the letter states.

For the past several months, Hancock administration officials, together with representatives from the Colorado Village Collaborative and the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, have been trying to find ideal locations for the sanctioned encampments. While both city and nonprofit entities have been taking feedback from residents,  there is no formal process for submitting suggestions. Formalizing the process would help streamline things.

"I think it makes sense for the city to say, 'Bring us your best approach and let’s figure out ways to make it work,'" says Travis Leiker, president of Capitol Hill United Neighborhoods, who adds, "A sweeping call for ideas hasn’t yet taken place at the city level, and I don’t think it’s with mal intent that it hasn’t taken place."

Reconsider a one-size-fits-all approach

On July 1, when Hancock announced that he'd be backing the safe-camping site, he said that he'd allow up to three sites of sixty people each. The first proposed site, in the parking lot of the Denver Coliseum, failed following neighbor pushback. Local opposition also took a spot by Sonny Lawson Park in Five Points off the table. Now it's time to be more nimble, Leiker says.

"I think some of the policymakers have come with — and sorry for the crude analogy — an 'encampment in a box' approach," Leiker says. "That one-size-fits-all approach just doesn’t seem to be working, because if it was working, I think progress would have been made."

Instead, those working on the safe-camping site initiative should consider smaller sites with fewer occupants as a way to make them more palatable, says Leiker, arguing for "customized, site-specific provision of services, accommodations and pathways forward for those that are experiencing homelessness."

Provide comprehensive services at each site

While creating a higher number of smaller sites would be less efficient in terms of sharing resources, one way to mitigate that decline in efficiency would be to create a "roaming support team" that could visit each site, the letter suggests.

"The roaming services could be vouchers for a more permanent set of housing, access to food. It could be health care, vaccinations, flu shots — those things that could be roaming services that are micro-targeting these encampments, these temporary sites, and providing those services on a semi-regular basis," explains Leiker. This concept vision would still include standard services "that are going to take place at each site for the sake of neighborhood concerns and the safety of those who are living there," such as "sanitation, security, counseling and laundry services."

Provide status reports for sites under consideration

Although about 100 sites have been under consideration, only two of them have gone public...to very poor results.  While there's a risk that revealing a location under consideration could rally opposition early, Leiker believes that "openness, honesty and transparency, with a clear articulation of vision, values and goals," will be more successful than "mystery, suspicion, and allowing the narrative to shape itself."

The four organizations liken this type of transparency to what occurs with zoning and landmark status requests that go before city council. The process is designed to be extra-transparent, so that both members of the public and elected officials can determine if what's being requested makes sense.

Expand the list of potential sites

The neighborhood organizations say that they've heard from groups that have suggested safe-camping sites "to little avail," and that their ideas were rejected either because of zoning issues or other roadblocks.

On October 12, Denver City Council voted to remove one major zoning obstacle by giving the zoning administrator authority to allow safe-camping sites on areas zoned under the old code that pre-dates 2010, which had not been possible before.

And there are other potential sites that could be considered. "That might mean open fields, vacant motels, unused, decommissioned monasteries that are set up already for housing," says Leiker.

Don't displace, thoughtfully relocate

This is a longer-term goal that will only happen if the city has significant capacity at a number of safe-camping sites. "Moving encampments to other locations can and should be done infrequently and with compassion and care," the letter reads.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines recommend that municipalities avoid sweeps if no housing is available, to prevent the further spread of COVID. But right now, with no safe-camping sites in place and encampments throughout Denver leading to complaints from neighbors about security and sanitation issues, "what we see is a sweep and no followup," Leiker contends.

"But I hope what the city will do is once these temporary Safe Outdoor Spaces are up," he says, "is actually relocate people, not sweep them, so that they're going to get the services they need — counseling services that are warranted, access to food and shelter."

Designate a clear point of contact

Right now, the four organizations say that those who want to contribute in some way to Safe Outdoor Spaces don't know who to contact, and they suggest that the city assign a single point person whose job focuses on the project. While Cole Chandler, who heads the Colorado Village Collaborative, is leading things on the nonprofit side, multiple officials in the Hancock administration are involved.

Britta Fisher, executive director of the Department of Housing Stability; Evan Dreyer, the mayor's deputy chief of staff; and Bob McDonald, the city's top public-health official, are all collaborating on this project. While their involvement should continue, Leiker says, it would make sense to have "one person who is driving this initiative," who can be the city's main point of contact and also coordinate among various Denver agencies.

How neighborhood organizations can help

The city should let neighborhood organizations know how they can help support the initiative. "I can say that the four groups that were parties to this memo are interested in being those thought partners," acknowledges Leiker.

"Perhaps a step-by-step outreach guide makes the most sense. We do not want neighbors to target those most in need, but we do need guidance as to how we remedy certain situations," the letter notes.

Dreyer, who recently met with those who sent the letter, was "super appreciative" of the recommendations, according to Leiker. So was Britta Fisher, head of the Department of Housing Stability.

"The feedback provided is very much valued, as it takes a community response to address the problem of homelessness in our community," says Derek Woodbury, a department spokesperson. "The administration met this week and will continue meeting with the leaders of these four organizations to follow up on their concerns and proposed action items."

After working on the project since the start of the pandemic with the Colorado Village Collaborative, Chandler is  particularly excited by the suggestions.

"I'm thrilled to see such pragmatic, solutions-oriented thinking coming from Denver neighbors," he says, "and I will be reaching out to the authors to discuss ways to advance our common goals." 
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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.