Denver to open temporary sanctioned camps for people experiencing homelessness

Denver’s mayor, who had resisted sanctioned camping, says COVID-19 “has introduced a new reality.” 
8 min. read
People living outside of St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral gather their belongings during a city-run cleanup of the sidewalks here in Capitol Hill. May 20, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Denver will be opening temporary, sanctioned and serviced camps where people experiencing homelessness can shelter amid the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing the city to clear other camps that have sprung up around town.

Mayor Michael Hancock said Wednesday it had not yet been decided how many sanctioned camps would be needed or where they would be located, saying the neighborhoods that will host them could be anywhere in the city and people in houses there would need to be informed before the unhoused move in. Nonprofits who had lobbied for sanctioned camps said the first would be opened in the coming weeks, but did not say where.

Hancock, who had resisted the idea of sanctioned camping, said during a news conference that "COVID has introduced a new reality."

"By providing alternatives, we will be able to step up our enforcement" of Denver's ban on urban camping,  Hancock said.

Hancock said people now camping near Morey Middle School in Capitol Hill would be the first to be targeted for relocation, and that efforts would follow to clear camps near the Capitol and in the Ballpark area of Five Points. He said a combination of encouraging people to move to motels, shelters and sanctioned sites and enforcing the camping ban would be used to clear the camps.

Near Morey Wednesday afternoon, Chris Johnson swept the pavement in front of his tent and polished a pair of shoes, keeping busy as his wife Christina Johnson spoke. Both said they had not wanted to go to a shelter because they would not have been able to stay together there. Couples would be able to stay together at sanctioned camps, which will have bathrooms, showers and other services.

"That would be nice," Christina Johnson said.

She said they had been planning to move soon because they knew Denver public schools such as Morey would be resuming classes next month. Christina Johnson said they had not known where they would go. Would they consider the sanctioned camp?

"Hell yeah," Chris Johnson said.

The couple had arrived last August in the Denver area, where Chris Johnson has family. They had been living in Chicago with Christina Johnson's parents, her brother and his wife. They lived for a time with relatives of Chris Johnson in Aurora before ending up on the streets.

Wednesday, the mayor said an estimated third of the people in the encampments were from neighboring cities that do not have shelters.

"The number of (unsanctioned) encampments and the public health and safety risks to the people living in these encampments and to the neighborhoods has reached a tipping point," Hancock said.

Bob McDonald, the executive director of Denver's Department of Public Health and Environment, also addressed the news conference. He said a national outbreak of the viral disease hepatitis A that reached Denver in June of 2019 is still sickening people living on the streets. McDonald added that he has seen signs recently of a possible outbreak in the encampments of the bacterial disease shigellosis. McDonald said people in encampments have tested positive for the coronavirus.

People experiencing homelessness can have weakened immune symptoms because of their living conditions and they are often older and have other health concerns that put them at greater risk of suffering the worst effects of COVID-19.

McDonald said from a health and safety standpoint, getting people inside was preferable to encampments, sanctioned or not. He described sanctioned camping as a harm reduction strategy.

Paul Bork, who has lived in an apartment and 13th Avenue and Grant Street for two years, said he has seen the trash pile up and other problems escalate around nearby Morey school in recent months.

"I have a five and seven year old and when I walk by and they (people living in the encampment) essentially cat call my children, it makes my skin crawl," Bork said.

He said he and neighbors have reached out to the mayor and city and state lawmakers. He's also spoken to a man living in the camp, who told Bork the area would be tidier if the city provided trash bags. Bork said news of the sanctioned camps was the first he'd heard of a possible solution.

"As long as they have some sort of plan, I think that's encouraging," Bork said.

The Interfaith Alliance of Colorado and Colorado Village Collaborative had in late April presented to top Hancock aides a detailed plan developed with the architecture and urban design nonprofit Radian for what they call "temporary safe outdoor space." At the time, Kathleen Van Voorhis of the Interfaith Alliance had said in a statement that "the safest, most reasonable approach during this public health emergency is to provide necessary resources to our neighbors on the streets by establishing a safe outdoor space where those continuing to live outside can maintain appropriate social distancing, engage with outreach coordinators, and have access to hand washing and health care services."

Wednesday, Van Voorhis said in an interview that the aim was to open the first camp by July 17. Cole Chandler, whose Colorado Village Collaborative will be the main manager of the camp, joined Hancock during the newsconference and said staffing and private funding were already in place. Chandler said he was ready to set up the first sanctioned site "as quickly as possible."

The Interfaith Alliance; Colorado Village Collaborative; Radian; the Dignity Project, which provides showers; and St. Francis Center, which helps people experiencing homelessness find jobs and housing, issued a joint statement Wednesday saying they were collaborating on the first site. The nonprofits said they were "ready with site and operational plans, as well as materials to stand up the first site in the coming two weeks."

Hancock said the city was considering providing city-owned land for sanctioned camps and discussing other kinds of support.

In a statement on its web site Wednesday, the Colorado Village Collaborative  said that people living in the camp will have access to bathrooms, showers, electricity, internet and other facilities and services such as help finding housing and jobs.

Colorado Village Collaborative helped pioneer Denver's first and only sanctioned tiny home village. After initial resistance, tiny home villages have been embraced by city officials as alternatives to shelters.

Last May, Denver voters overwhelmingly backed keeping the ban on urban camping imposed by City Council in 2012. Months after the vote, a Denver county judge ruled the camping ban unconstitutional. The city has appealed the judge's ruling, and a higher court decision is pending.

Denver joins cities such as Portland and San Francisco that because of the coronavirus crisis reversed long-held opposition to sanctioned camping. Hancock reiterated as recently as April 24 that he saw no need for such camps and that his priority was getting people indoors. But last week he signaled a shift.

"We're looking at all the options right now," the mayor said last week during an update on his administration's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wednesday, he told reporters he had consulted with mayors in such cities as Atlanta, Austin, Dallas, Portland, Ore., San Francisco, San Jose and Seattle about sanctioned camping. He noted that Portland has three sites, each with 45 tents, which he said was a manageable size.

Chandler said the goal was "a regulated, managed encampment." Chandler said residents would not be allowed guests and would have to agree to rules in a model he said was informed by his group's tiny home village. Hancock said drug use would not be allowed in the sanctioned camps.

Since the pandemic reached Denver, Hancock's administration has worked with service providers to open shelters at the National Western Complex and at the nearby Coliseum that together can house some 1,000 people. The new shelters did not add significantly to the city's supply of shelter beds, but did allow safer distancing at older shelters as well as at the National Western and the Coliseum.

The city also has secured hotel rooms for people experiencing homelessness who need to recover from illness and for those considered most vulnerable to COVID-19.

A statement from the mayor's office Wednesday said that starting this week Hancock has directed city agencies to focus on guiding people living in encampments scattered throughout downtown to motel rooms, sanctioned camps and shelters. The city also said it would increase efforts to clean encampments with more frequent trash pickup and used-needle collection.

Advocates of sanctioned camps say they are needed in part as a matter of fairness. Advocates point out that only people who go to shelters have been offered services such as COVID-19 testing and hotel rooms.

Mayor Hancock added Wednesday that he supports a possible November ballot measure led by Councilwoman Robin Kniech, the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless and several shelter operators and service providers that would use a new sales tax to raise an estimated $40 million a year to support services for people experiencing homelessness.

Kniech, who also spoke during Wednesday's news conference, said the funds would be used to build housing, improve shelters and support innovative approaches such as tiny homes.

Bork, who lives in a Capitol Hill apartment, said he would not want a sanctioned camp near his home. But he had an idea for a possible location: Civic Center Park. Bork said that might get state and local lawmakers to ask themselves, "Are we addressing this giant problem that's right in front of our face?"

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