Capitol Hill churches are willing to host sanctioned camping for people experiencing homelessness

But first, neighbors must weigh in.

A look inside a tent set up at a mock sanctioned campsite in the parking lot of Belong Church in North Capitol Hill. Oct. 2, 2020.

A look inside a tent set up at a mock sanctioned campsite in the parking lot of Belong Church in North Capitol Hill. Oct. 2, 2020.

Donna Bryson. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Two Capitol Hill churches have offered their parking lots as sites where scores of people experiencing homelessness can find shelter and services during the pandemic.

In a statement Monday, the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado said virtual community meetings scheduled Nov. 19 and 21 would be held before Denver’s first sanctioned camps, also known as safe outdoor spaces, could open at First Baptist Church, at 1373 Grant Street, and Denver Community Church’s Uptown location at 1595 Pearl Street. Two previous proposals for sites were withdrawn after neighbors expressed opposition.

First Baptist’s Rev. Brian Henderson has been doing his own outreach, speaking in recent months about the possibility of a sanctioned camp at the church to more than 50 people, including church members and managers of nearby apartment buildings.

“Unanimously, folks said, ‘We need to do this. It’s the right thing to do,'” Henderson said, adding his congregation of 80 included people who lived in the area and knew that people experiencing homelessness were among their neighbors.  Henderson is himself a Capitol Hill resident.

Travis Leiker, president of the ​Capitol Hill United Neighborhoods, Inc. board, said his board supported the idea. Leiker said he was looking forward to a community conversation he hoped would lead to an agreement with neighbors covering issues such as keeping the camps clean and secure and ensuring their inhabitants had support to move on to stable housing. The Interfaith Alliance said Capitol Hill United Neighborhoods and another registered neighborhood organization, Uptown on the Hill, were partners in the effort to establish sanctioned camping in Capitol Hill.

Judy Trompeter, president of Uptown on the Hill, said she hoped other churches and organizations would follow the lead of First Baptist Church and Denver Community Church so that small, sanctioned camps could be established around Denver.

In talking to neighbors, Trompeter said it was clear people saw housing as the solution. She said a more immediate solution was needed, and that managed camping could be a first step. She said she was not sure how residents would react to the idea.

“We welcome reaction,” Trompeter said. “That’s the only way we’re going to figure out how to make it work for everybody.”

Neighbors have pressed for solutions to Capitol Hill’s unsanctioned camping, including a large site around Morey Middle School that the city’s public health department ordered cleared in August. When such camps are cleared, their inhabitants often move just a few blocks. In a memo last month to Mayor Michael Hancock, Capitol Hill United Neighborhoods, the Colfax Avenue Business Improvement District, Uptown on the Hill and the Golden Triangle Creative District expressed concern about a “seeming surge of homeless encampments in central Denver” and called for people in unsanctioned encampments to be moved to “sanctioned, accessible sites.”

Officials in the city’s housing department and nonprofit service providers have said housing insecurity is increasing because of the economic slowdown created by the pandemic, even as shelters have had to reduce their capacity to create the social distancing needed to slow the spread of the disease. Leiker, the Capitol Hill neighborhood group president, acknowledged the sanctioned camps proposed at First Baptist and Community Church won’t be able to accommodate the hundreds of people on the streets in Capitol Hill and elsewhere in Denver.

“It is not a panacea,” Leiker said. “But it is a step in the right direction.”

In a request for sanctioned camping proposals issued last week, the city said “the goal of safe outdoor spaces is to lower the number of people living in existing unsanctioned camps in Denver and provide them with a managed, safe sleeping location to reduce risks associated with COVID-19.”

The Colorado Village Collaborative had been poised to manage the safe outdoor space first proposed for the Coliseum parking lot and then for a plaza alongside the Blair Caldwell library branch. Cole Chandler, director of the Colorado Village Collaborative, said his nonprofit was now set to manage the camp proposed on the Community Church lot. Another nonprofit, Earthlink, would manage the First Baptist site, Chandler said. Each site was large enough for 30 tents and a maximum of 40 people. The Interfaith Alliance said it hoped up to three additional sites could be identified elsewhere in the city early next year.

Leiker said he was familiar with the organizations involved and believed that “they’ll deliver with great success.”

The Interfaith Alliance has offices at First Baptist. But the church’s Rev. Henderson said it was conversations with Leiker and others that first got him thinking about offering his parking lot for a sanctioned camp. Henderson said supporting people experiencing homelessness is part of the church’s history. It’s lower level hosted a men’s shelter for 20 years starting in the 1990s. In more recent years, it sheltered women experiencing homelessness a few nights a month as part of a network of churches that provided that service.

Chandler said plans were for First Baptist to host women and transgender people and the Community Church camp to host single men and women, couples, people with pets and LGBTQ individuals.

Chandler said he hoped the camps would open in early December.

“It’s just really critical that we respond to the needs of our neighbors on the streets, especially as (COVID) cases are rising,” Chandler said.

Chandler said the coming winter was another reason he hoped the camps would be open soon. He said insulated tents and electrical heating pads under the tents were among the steps being considered to ensure people were warm.

After the two previous sites fell through, Chandler’s organization embarked on a community outreach effort to build support. The outreach has included setting up a mock uninhabited camp for a weekend in the parking lot of Belong Church in North Capitol Hill. Belong is not one of the churches that has offered to host a real camps.

Trompeter, of the Uptown on the Hill neighborhood group, lives near Belong Church and toured the mock camp when it was there.

“I liked the idea of showing the possibility,” she said.

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