As Civic Center Park clears out, advocates worry about where people will go

The city says its outreach teams will try to make contact with people experiencing homelessness, but some advocates worry people will just be pushed to Denver’s outskirts.
4 min. read
People hang out in Civic Center Park. July 10, 2021.
(Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

The scene at Civic Center Park is grim on Wednesday. Although tents and shopping carts have been cleared from the park, encampments have already spilled into adjacent streets and intersections ahead of the city's decision to close the park to the public on Sept. 15.

A woman who spoke to Denverite spent the night just a few blocks north of the park, on East Sherman Street and 18th Avenue. Despite new barriers and the imminent closure notifications, the park is still where many people experiencing homelessness will spend their days until the fences come up.

Cyndi Karvaski, a Parks and Recreation spokesperson, said some advocates misunderstand how the closure will take place. It will not be what's called an encampment sweep, a city practice of quickly removing all of a group's personal belongings to clear an area. The practice has drawn much ire from advocates -- but Mayor Michael Hancock has defended them.

Karvaski explained that the individuals at the park during the day don't actually live there, because, like all city parks, Civic Center Park is closed from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. Visitors are asked to disperse every night, which they have done largely without issue.

So instead of conducting a sweep on Sept. 15, officials will begin setting up fences around 4 a.m., when the park is already empty.

Crews unloaded barricades in Denver’s Civic Center Park on Tuesday, September 7, 2021. CBS4 reports that the city intends to close the park on Wednesday for safety and sanitation reasons for at least two months. Some sections of the park were closed off Tuesday.
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News

Still, advocates worry.

Travis Singhaus, the CEO of Impact Locally, a nonprofit which regularly hands out meals at Civic Center Park, is one of them.

"(Closing the park) disperses the people, and then we basically have to try and hunt and find those people to be able to help them," Singhaus said. "It makes it harder for them to find out what resources are available. It makes it harder to get food, clothing, any number of other things."

Other advocates echoed these sentiments, wondering whether the city was just relocating an issue without addressing it.

"Some will spread out through the gulches and creek areas. They'll probably do some bridge-dwelling and things like that, in the outskirts," said James Fry, the executive director of Mean Street Ministry in Lakewood, which has been involved in homeless outreach for decades. "When Denver does a sweep like this, the areas under the bridges get to be a lot more dangerous."

In a press release, the city briefly acknowledged the homeless population in the park: "Outreach teams have and will continue to engage with people in the downtown area and throughout the city to provide resources for substance misuse, mental health services, and access to temporary and permanent housing."

During the closure, Denver Parks and Recreation will be responsible for the bulk of the cleanup, but certain issues, like rodent mitigation and restoring historic structures, will be left to contracted experts. During the closure, Denver Parks and Recreation staff will work to reseed turf in the park, trim trees, upgrade irrigation and begin installing new LED lights in around 230 fixtures throughout the park .

Karvaski said that many factors made giving a timeline for reopening virtually impossible. For example, the regeneration and growth cycle of the turf will be unpredictable, as well as efforts to try to contain a quickly-reproducing rodent population.

"It also has to do with the Department of Health and Environment telling us that we're at a point where we can reopen the park," she said. "So we don't have a timeline at this point of how long this is going to take."

As a cultural centerpiece for the city, the park is home to many large events, protests and civic engagements that will have to be rescheduled or moved due to the closures. Karvaski said the city has reached out to all the events awaiting public permitting with recommendations.

This year's Women's March, which is tentatively slated for Oct. 2, is one of the events affected. According to its Facebook events page, the march is currently awaiting approval for permits, and organizers are thinking of relocating the event. Other events, like the the Rally for Recovery, the Hot Chocolate Run and the Denver Pagan Pride Day will also be affected by the closure.

It's unclear whether the Denver Art Museum's grand Oct. 24 reopening will be impacted. The renovations on its north side are directly across from Civic Center Park.

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