"We're going to be sleeping 100 people a night in a model that didn't exist a year ago at this time," says Cole Chandler, director of the Colorado Village Collaborative, which will be setting up the site at Regis University's campus in northwest Denver at the same time his group is establishing a new facility in a parking lot of Park Hill United Methodist Church in South Park Hill. The two sites will have 89 tents combined, with room for 100 people experiencing homelessness — which represents around one-tenth of the estimated unsheltered homeless population in Denver. Approximately $900,000 of city money will fund the two sites for seven months of operation.
The safe-camping site model involves a staffed site with bathrooms and sinks. Those staying at the sites don't have to worry about being swept by local authorities; they also have a sturdy ice-fishing tent in which to sleep. At the sites, they're also able to access services, such as job-placement help and housing opportunities, note service providers.
“Ours is a faith that does justice, a faith that calls on us to commit ourselves to combat indifference, walk with the poor and foster dignity among all peoples,” Regis president Reverend John P. Fitzgibbons says in a statement about the new safe-camping site. “We were given the opportunity to provide a safe and secure temporary home for those suddenly cast onto the streets through no fault of their own. We embrace and welcome those who need an extra measure of human kindness and concern during these difficult times. As Pope Francis says, ‘If we do not take care of one another...we cannot heal the world.’”
Mayor Michael Hancock initially expressed skepticism about the safe-camping site concept when service providers presented it early in the pandemic as a mitigation tool to fight COVID. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that municipalities avoid sweeping encampments so as not to spread the coronavirus unless individual housing options are available. Denver has continued to sweep encampments for most of the pandemic, however.
Hancock came around to the idea of safe-camping sites in summer 2020. After a few false starts, largely triggered by neighborhood opposition, nonprofits set up the first sites in December 2020.
Currently, CVC operates a safe-camping site at the Denver Community Church in the Uptown neighborhood. Another nonprofit, Earthlinks, runs a safe-camping site for women at the First Baptist Church in Capitol Hill just across from the Colorado Capitol. Those two sites are set to close down at the end of May, since the leases with the churches started in December 2020 and lapse after six months.
"The two new sites will represent a significant expansion of this program. As of today, we have 52 total safe outdoor space units with a max capacity of 70 people," Chandler says, noting that the Park Hill United Methodist Church site will host up to forty people, while the Regis University site, which will be located in a parking lot near West 50th Avenue and Federal Boulevard, will have capacity for sixty individuals. CVC is running the Park Hill site and will partner with the St. Francis Center to staff the Regis University site. All residents of the current safe-camping sites will be able to move to one of the two new sites when they open in early to mid-June.
Whenever CVC or Earthlinks, working in partnership with the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, have announced plans to start a safe-camping site in a specific area, neighbors have complained, expressing concerns about safety, trash and drug use. So far, however, their worries have not become reality, according to those running the sites.
Since all four sites proposed so far are on private property, Denver City Council doesn't vote on them; they simply need to be approved by a zoning administrator.
CVC is hosting an open house at the Denver Community Church safe-camping site, located at 1595 Pearl Street, on May 8; that site will close in June. CVC will host virtual community information meetings regarding the new safe-camping sites on May 15 and May 20; find more information here.
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