Denver Mayor Michael Hancock announced Wednesday, “with some reluctance,” his support of a temporary sanctioned space where people experiencing homelessness, many who prefer camping in tents over sleeping in shelters, can live during the coronavirus pandemic.

The move comes eight years after the city passed its urban camping ban and barely a year since Denver residents voted overwhelmingly to uphold it. A Denver county judge has since ruled the camping ban unconstitutional, and the city has appealed that decision. 

“These are extraordinary times that require extraordinary measures,” Hancock said in a virtual press conference. “Our health officials have monitored health and safety conditions, and the situation has deteriorated to a point that we must work and reduce the risk.”

Hancock was compelled to approve a proposal for a “Safe Outdoor Space” that will provide emergency support for up to 50 people in Denver’s homeless community. The initiative was brought forth in April by the Colorado Village Collaborative, which runs Denver’s first and only “tiny home” village.

The Colorado Village Collaborative — not the city of Denver — will staff and manage the new space 24/7. The location is still being determined. The group intends to work with the city to establish more outdoor camping spaces, a plan Hancock supports.

“This announcement isn't perfect, but so little is, and in the midst of our present moment in history I'm finding encouragement in this bit of good news,” Colorado Village Collaborative founder Cole Chandler wrote to other organizers Wednesday in an email obtained by Colorado Politics.

“This kind of shift is something that people on the streets have demanded for years,” he wrote, “and today is a great day as we get to celebrate a little win that brings about a lot more dignity, stability, health, and equity for the people we stand alongside.”

Last week, Hancock held a press conference that was nearly derailed by protesters, many affiliated with Denver Homeless Out Loud, who demanded the city end homeless encampment cleanups.

The mayor then held a nearly hour-long meeting with four organizers, along with members of his cabinet and a couple of council members, to listen to homeless advocates' demands, which included providing a safe space for the unhoused to camp.

In Wednesday’s press conference, Hancock announced that outreach, health care and mental health worker visits will “intensify” at encampment locations. Those efforts will include extending trash and needle exchange services, as well as “guiding” people to one of the city’s 700 motel rooms and its two large 24-hour shelters at the National Western Complex and the Denver Coliseum.

The city has spent more than $24 million in emergency COVID-19 response funding for the city’s unhoused community.

More than 440 people experiencing homelessness have tested positive for the virus and at least eight have died, The Denver Post reports.

More than 100 people have contracted Hepatitis A within the city’s homeless encampments, said Bob McDonald, the executive director of Denver Public Health and Environment. Health officials are also seeing an outbreak of a bacterial infection called shigellosis, which can cause severe digestive issues. Both infections are spread through contact with fecal matter.

Later, in an interview with Colorado Politics, McDonald stressed the importance of hand washing and access to portable restrooms, highlighting the fact that the city has expanded the availability of hand sinks and restrooms. Still, he said, those efforts don’t get to the heart of the issue.  

“The best way to protect oneself, particularly if you are a person experiencing homelessness, is to take advantage of the sheltering system,” he said. “That’s where it’s safest to be.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people living in encampments should remain where they are during the COVID-19 pandemic to prevent exposure and spread of the virus. The CDC also recommends that local and state governments provide sanitation and supportive services to encampments and continue to assist people with accessing health care services, shelter, and housing if it is available.  

In a June 8 testing of COVID-19 prevalence among Denver’s unsheltered community, the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, in partnership with the city’s health department, voluntarily tested 50 people for COVID-19 who were living in encampments in downtown Denver. Not one tested positive.

“These testing results demonstrate that while people experiencing homelessness who are living outside may be in danger from the elements, crime being perpetrated against them, other health risks, and enforcement of laws that punish their living situation, they are not more likely to be in danger of having or contracting COVID-19 while living in encampments,” Cathy Alderman, CEO of Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, said in a statement June 11. “This is likely because they are living in their own self-contained space with the opportunity to isolate themselves in their tents.”

Denver City Councilwoman At Large Robin Kniech, who worked closely to secure safe outdoor spaces alongside Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca of District 9, stressed the fact that the initiative was made possible through “deep collaboration” between the council, the mayor’s office and the community.

The two councilwomen were two of more than a dozen elected officials who wrote to Hancock in late April to request a temporary outdoor space be stood up.

In the Wednesday press conference, Kniech drew attention to the fact that “the majority of those who are unsheltered in our region are people of color.”

By addressing and reducing risk, she said, “we are addressing racial inequality and how it shows up in homelessness, particularly for Black and Native American individuals.”  

An April survey of more than 600 Denver residents showed that 8 in 10 supported temporary outdoor spaces to keep people safe and prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

“We are responding not just to the crisis in front of us, but to the community who has been communicating with us,” she said. “Protecting folks experiencing homelessness is protection for our entire community and helping to reduce risk.”

At least 3,943 people were homeless in Denver last year, according to the most recent Point in Time survey, a census mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

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