Homeless Space

Tents sit in the parking lot at First Baptist Church in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood on Friday, Dec. 4, 2020. The tents, part of Denver’s first Safe Outdoor Space, housed up to 30 women and trans-identifying individuals through June 2021. (Michael Ciaglo/Special to The Denver Gazette)

More managed homeless campsites are coming to Denver as the city prepares for the upcoming winter season, the Colorado Village Collaborative announced Thursday.

A third campsite is set to open on Nov. 10 at the Denver Health campus at West 8th Avenue and Elati Street. This will add to the two existing campsites, called Safe Outdoor Spaces, currently operating at Park Hill United Methodist Church and Regis University.

In addition, the campsite at Regis University will expand its operations for the winter, pushing back its closure date from Dec. 31 to March 31. The Park Hill campsite is still scheduled to close by Dec. 31, to be replaced by an undetermined location.

“The SOS initiative has delivered positive impacts of safe, sanitary and secure managed spaces that help reduce harm and increase stability in our COVID-19 response,” said Britta Fisher with the Department of Housing Stability. “This new option is clearly connecting individuals with much needed access to case management, services and supports that provide a bridge to stability.”

The current campsites house up to 100 residents combined, providing them with heated tents, bathrooms, laundry services, internet access, food donations, dental care, food stamps, COVID-19 testing, community service opportunities and services for finding permanent housing.

The campsites are fenced off and staffed around the clock, according to Colorado Village Collaborative, which runs the sites. Camp residents are screened to keep out sex offenders and those convicted of violent crimes within the last five years.

Denver began establishing these managed homeless campsites at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic when rates of homelessness increased, as did public health concerns regarding indoor shelters.

In 2021, there were approximately 5,530 homeless people living in shelters in the Denver metro area, according to an annual count. Another 1,185 people live in illegal encampments throughout the city, according to estimates from Denver’s Department of Housing Stability.

The newest 12,500-square-foot campsite at Denver Health will offer shelter for up to 50 people from Nov. 10 until at least Oct. 31, 2022, the announcement said.

“We are honored to partner on this project and invest in the community in a way that will directly impact the well-being of the people who live on this site,” said Denver Health CEO Robin Wittenstein. “To truly care for the whole person, we must address all social determinants of health.”

The Denver Health site will be designed in partnership with several Native American service agencies to provide Native American-inclusive programming, Wittenstein said. This includes the Denver Indigenous Refugee Camp and Four Winds American Indian Council.

The inclusive programming will aim to serve the over 9% of unsheltered homeless residents in Denver who identify as Native American, the announcement said. 

This new campsite comes as Mayor Michael Hancock and the Denver City Council have committed to increasing funding for Safe Outdoor Spaces in 2022, in addition to tiny home villages, safe parking spaces and other sheltering options.

The expansion of the campsite at Regis University will mark the first time a managed homeless campsite has stayed in place for more than six months, after the first two sites in church parking lots moved after operating from January to June 2021.

“Ours is a faith that does justice and calls on us to commit ourselves to combat indifference, walk with the poor and foster dignity among all peoples,” said the Rev. John Fitzgibbons, president of Regis University. “We in turn have been enriched by this experience, and we are most gratified by the positive, warm and welcoming response from our neighbors and university community members.”

However, the response to managed homeless campsites has not been all positive. In August, the Denver Board of Zoning Appeals narrowly rejected an effort to reverse the zoning permit for the Park Hill campsite. 

Those advocating for the permit reversal argued the site would negatively influence the community, specifically raising issue with the site’s policy on drugs. The Colorado Village Collaborative does not allow drugs or alcohol within the camps, but staff do not search residents or their belongings.

Previously, small groups of neighbors have held protests and pursued unsuccessful lawsuits against proposed campsites, claiming they would create a nuisance and present a danger to the community.

Cole Chandler, executive director of Colorado Village Collaborative, has fought these claims, saying the campsites reduce the neighborhood impact of illegal camps. The Denver Police Department has also reported no uptick in safety issues in areas surrounding the campsites, according to Police Chief Paul Pazen.

Many residents use the camps to transition into more stable housing, data show. On May 13, the Colorado Village Collaborative reported five people had moved into tiny homes, two into permanent homes, five were on housing vouchers that can be spent on rented housing and 12 had gotten jobs or were looking for jobs.

The campsites have also provided 180 case management appointments to help residents address past legal issues that prevent them from obtaining housing and employment, according to Colorado Village Collaborative.

Colorado Village Collaborative and Denver Health will co-host an online community meeting on Nov. 3 from 6 to 7:30 p.m. regarding the new campsite. For information, visit coloradovillagecollaborative.org/safe-outdoor-space.

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