Will a Safe-Camping Site in South Park Hill Create More Understanding?

The first safe-camping sites opened in December 2020.
The first safe-camping sites opened in December 2020. Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
South Park Hill, one of the wealthiest sections of Denver, could soon have a safe-camping site located within its boundaries. And advocates are hopeful that having affluent Denverites see homelessness up close could help build more citywide empathy for those living on the streets.

"I actually believe that putting this project in Park Hill is good for the entire city of Denver, because it forces us to have a conversation that we’ve only been having in certain parts of town and identify this as a citywide issue that requires action on all of our parts," says Cole Chandler, director of the Colorado Village Collaborative, which already runs an existing safe-camping site at the Denver Community Church in Uptown.

If all goes according to plan, come June 1, Park Hill United Methodist Church, located on Montview Boulevard between Glencoe and Forest streets, will welcome up to fifty residents, who will be staying in tents in the church's parking lot.

CVC will staff and manage the site, which Park Hill United Methodist shares with Temple Micah.

The safe-camping site in South Park Hill, which is slated to remain up through the end of the year, would combine two existing sites — the one in Uptown, which currently houses forty people, and another at the First Baptist Church in Capitol Hill. While both of those sites are in areas that have visible homelessness on the streets and access to nearby services, South Park Hill doesn't have much of either.

"South Park Hill is pretty affluent; it’s pretty white. I’m not sure how much diversity we see on a day-to-day basis, particularly during COVID," says Frank Walsh, who lives less than two blocks from the church and supports moving the safe-camping site there. "I think the closest people get in our neighborhood to seeing the effects of homelessness are East Colfax or certain parts of City Park. I think this would be the first visible sign of homelessness in our neighborhood."

Unlike some unsanctioned encampments, the current safe-camping sites have matching tents arranged in parking lots. Residents have to keep their belongings inside their tents and are not allowed to use drugs on site, though staffers do not police what may happen inside the tents. No guests are allowed.

Chandler points out that there have been no calls to 911 regarding the Denver Community Church site — which is not the case with most unsanctioned encampments.

Chandler and other service providers have been promoting the safe-camping site model as a way to get people living in unsheltered settings into safer situations, where they aren't at risk of being swept and can more easily access services, such as medical care and job-search support. The first two sites opened in December 2020, and while neighbors had initially complained that the Denver Community Church site was across from an unofficial encampment, that encampment eventually came down, and Chandler has received no negative feedback since.

Two years ago, when Chandler sought to set up a tiny home village in the Globeville neighborhood, some neighbors pushed back, voicing their feeling that the city constantly dumped services and projects that would be successfully opposed in wealthier neighborhoods into their part of town.

The Colorado Village Collaborative was ultimately able to set up the Beloved Community Village in Globeville, but plenty of neighbors are still ready to see the village go away after its lease expires.

And last spring, Globeville residents rallied successfully against the suggestion that a safe-camping site be set up in the parking lot of the Denver Coliseum. Not long after, the Five Points Business Improvement District rallied against a plan to establish a safe-camping site in the plaza between Sonny Lawson Park and the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library.

Mayor Michael Hancock, who was initially skeptical of the safe-camping site model, came around to it last summer as a way to limit the spread of COVID-19. Still, he took the Five Points location off the table and suggested that the city keep looking for a site.

Then the Colorado Village Collaborative, the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado and Earthlinks, three nonprofits all pushing for safe-camping sites, were able to strike deals with the First Baptist Church and the Denver Community Church to use their parking lots. Since the land was private, the sites didn't need approval from Denver City Council — just a sign-off from the Denver zoning administrator.

While those sites got up and running, city officials and service providers continued looking for other sites. Denver has at least 1,000 people living in unsheltered settings, so there's a definite need. Although Chandler and others have been unable to find a workable alternative, Park Hill United Methodist recently stepped up and offered its parking lot.

"We feel called to do this. We feel like if we’re following Jesus and his life and example and the things that he taught — one of those things is to engage with, and administer to, and provide relief to people who are on the margins of society. In a sense, that’s really a lot of what Christianity is about, at least for me," says Steve Holz-Russell, a member of the church who chairs the congregation's Missions and Social Justice Team. Holz-Russell notes that Park Hill United Methodist Church was a trailblazer for racial integration in the 1950s and 1960s, and now has a congregation split evenly between white and BIPOC members.

The Park Hill neighborhood also has a long and sometimes difficult history of racial integration, but the more diverse sections of Park Hill are Northeast Park Hill and North Park Hill, while South Park Hill is majority white.

Lead pastor Nathan Adams says that the church is trying to continue its history of not just saying and believing "the right things," but putting them "into action."

And there's certain to be plenty of action. A handful of neighbors have already started lobbying against the relocation of the safe-camping site to the church's parking lot.

"I’m definitely NIMBY on this. I think it’s a pretty horrible idea for lots of different reasons," says Jon Kinning, who lives a block from the church and wrote a letter to Chris Herndon, the area's Denver City Council representative, detailing his concerns about possible drug use, mental health issues, safety issues and the proximity to schools. "You’re plopping down fifty people in the middle of a residential neighborhood. If I wanted to live in Capitol Hill and deal with people sleeping in my front yard or going to the bathroom in my garage, I’d live in Capitol Hill."

Kinning says he feels that Chandler and others behind the safe-camping site move are trying to make a political statement by setting up a site in South Park Hill. "He’s trying to sensationalize it and put it in people’s faces because they want to do something about it," says Kinning.

While Chandler says the church was chosen for the next safe-camping site primarily because it was the only viable option, he admits that he's thought about how locating the site in South Park Hill could help shift the narrative on homelessness. "Knowing that this would be painful, I thought this would be good for our city," he  says. He also thinks the concerns expressed so far are based on people's perceptions of unsanctioned encampments, not safe-camping sites.

"I want those children to be safe," Chandler says. "Children having a chance to learn about this could be transformative to our society. Children can see their parents care about an issue and care about the world being a better place."

Walsh agrees that seeing a safe-camping site in South Park Hill could be valuable for children. He also feels that it's time for neighbors to put their money where their mouth is.

"For a neighborhood that has just a really high ratio of yards to yard signs with 'Hate Has No Home Here' and messages about love and equality and acceptance, we’ve got to walk the walk now," he says. "We’ve talked the talk now for the last year and a half. It’s on us now to live through actions."

Still, pushing boundaries can lead to unexpected discoveries.

"I hope it will be helpful for people to understand the benefits of safe spaces for people," says Cathy Alderman of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. "I hope preconceived notions don't set it up for failure."

Councilman Herndon admits that he had concerns about safe-camping sites prior to their start in Denver, but they largely disappeared after he spoke with Brian Henderson, the minister at First Baptist Church, about the site there. "Getting more information, you can see how this concept can produce positive results," says Herndon.

"Information is power," he continues, adding that he's now arrived at a place where he believes "we should consider all different avenues to help people experiencing homelessness get out of that."

Park Hill United Methodist Church and the Colorado Village Collaborative will host a virtual community forum on the proposed safe-camping site at 7 p.m. on Monday, April 19. Find more information here.
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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.