HOMELESS-COLD-09092020-KS-051 (copy)

One man, who goes by the name Cowboy, cleans his site along a row of tents on Welton Street in downtown Denver on September 9, 2020. The cold front that moved through the metro area that night, bringing freezing temperatures and snow, was particularly hard on those camping on the streets. Many said they huddled in tents to stay warm. Others, living under tarps hung on rope, said they and all of their belongings were soaked by the storm.

On July 1, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock OK’d “with some reluctance” plans to temporarily establish up to three managed campsites for people experiencing homelessness during the coronavirus pandemic, which has pushed people out of crowded shelters and into public streets from fear of falling ill.

But after three months of roadblocks and community backlash, the city is back to square one. 

“We have a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation, not only externally to the city but within the city itself, in terms of what this is and what this is not,” Hancock said this week in an interview with Denverite. “That’s why I called for a reset.”

Now, Denver service providers are attempting to educate residents and destigmatize “Safe Outdoor Spaces,” which many neighbors don’t want in their backyards, by setting up an unoccupied mini-replica site intended to not only show how the sanctioned sites will provide trash collection, bathrooms and showers for residents, but also provide longer-term connections to housing, health care and other services. 

“This will be a real opportunity for the citizens of Denver to see firsthand what we're talking about when we propose SOS in the community,” said Cuica Montoya of the Colorado Village Collaborative, the nonprofit that will manage the campsites. “We'll be there to answer questions and share more about who and how we plan to serve."

The model site will be small, with only four tents, and displayed at Belong Church at East 16th Avenue and Ogden Street. Colorado Village Collaborative and the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado will hold public open houses from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Oct. 3, and again from noon to 4 p.m. on Oct. 4. 

With or without full community support, however, the mayor said inaction is not an option.

“In this period of COVID, we are certainly seeing more people who are unsheltered on our streets, and so it is calling for extraordinary measures,” Hancock told Denverite. “We’re going to have to create a sanctioned site somewhere in order to begin the process of truly abating the number of unsanctioned sites on our streets.”

Since July, two campsite locations — the parking lot of the Denver Coliseum and a small strip of right-of-way between Sonny Lawson Park and the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library — have been proposed but were withdrawn shortly thereafter, following opposition from community members concerned for the safety of their neighborhoods.  

To give the city more options, the Denver City Council is moving forward with a temporary zoning amendment that would liberate about 20% more land currently restricted under Denver's “old” zoning code for emergency uses, including sanctioned homeless encampments and patio expansions for restaurants and bars. 

Absent this change, some landowners who may be interested in leasing their property to the city to support the managed campsites are barred from doing so. 

The goal is to “support the city’s response to the COVID-19 public health emergency, to permit COVID-related temporary uses anywhere in the city ... and to create equity within all parts of the city,” said bill sponsor District 1 Councilwoman Amanda Sandoval, who told Colorado Politics on Sept. 21 that she hadn’t received any concerns about the bill from colleagues or constituents. 

The City Council unanimously approved the measure on a first reading Sept. 21. A public hearing on the proposed ordinance will be held Oct. 12, followed by a final vote.

If council members give the greenlight, the move will come as “a big win to an effort seeking to provide space for our unhoused neighbors all across our city,” Cole Chandler, executive director of the Colorado Village Collaborative, told Colorado Politics.

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