Denver approves first funding for safe outdoor spaces for people experiencing homelessness

City Council awards a nearly $900,000 contract to Colorado Village Collaborative to help fund two sanctioned camping sites

A sanctioned camping site for people experiencing homelessness, also referred to as a safe outdoor space, located in the parking lot of the Denver Community Church in the city’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. (Photo provided by the Colorado Village Collaborative)

In July, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock announced he would allow people to live outdoors and promised that several temporary sanctioned camp sites would be established throughout the city. Now, eight months later, one nonprofit is getting the financial support to do so.

Denver City Council on Tuesday awarded a nearly $900,000 contract to Colorado Village Collaborative to help fund two sanctioned camping sites — one already in operation since December — through the rest of the year. The funds will cover approximately 86% of the site’s operational costs.

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“I have heard from a massive number of my constituents that they think this is the direction that would be better to go than what we’ve had with unregulated camps,” said Councilwoman Robin Kniech during a city council meeting on Feb. 16.

Denver Councilwoman Robin Kniech. (denvergov.org)

CVC’s first sanctioned camping site, also called a safe outdoor space, is located in the parking lot of the Denver Community Church in the city’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. The organization has also received approval to establish another camp, in collaboration with the St. Francis Center, but a location has yet to be determined. The city’s first safe outdoor space, which is operated by the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, was set up in December at the First Baptist Church, also in Capitol Hill. The site can support up to 30 women and transgender people.

The proposal warranted support from all City Council members but one. Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer voted against the contract, saying that voters had already decided on this issue when they chose to keep the city’s urban camping ban in place in 2019 when Initiative 300 was on the ballot.

“I don’t understand why we are spending our time and money defending urban camping bans in court on the one hand and then funding urban camping in direct contradiction to the will of our voters,” Sawyer said, referencing a federal class-action lawsuit pending against the city aimed at halting encampment sweeps during the pandemic.

“This contract is a Band-Aid that covers about 5% of the need at a huge cost and pays a private provider for services that we as a city already provide,” Sawyer said, adding that the funds could be spent more efficiently to prevent homelessness before it begins, such as funding eviction protection programs or drug rehabilitation and mental health services.

Denver Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer. (denvergov.org)

In response, Kniech, who supports the sanctioned camping sites, asked Cole Chandler, the executive director of CVC, to chime in and talk about how the safe outdoor spaces differ from unsanctioned urban camping.

“Those are two entirely different things,” Chandler said during the City Council meeting on Tuesday. “Initiative 300 would have given people the right to sleep in public space, essentially wherever they choose. That is absolutely not what this is. This is a resource rich, service rich, encampment model that’s fully managed by staff 24 hours a day.”

Residents of the sanctioned campsites stay in insulated ice fishing tents with heated blankets and have access to meals, bathrooms, laundry, showers and the internet. The sites are staffed with case managers who provide wellness screenings, housing referrals and employment support.

Chandler said the goals of the safe outdoors spaces are to prevent the spread of COVID-19 — which he said has been 100% successful to date — connect people with long-term housing and case management, and reduce the impact unsanctioned camps have on surrounding neighborhoods. 

“So, if you’re a council member that is getting calls about unsanctioned camps. If you’re getting calls saying, ‘Hey, I call 311 all the time, and nothing ever happens.’ If you’re getting those kinds of complaints, this is intended to be a solution to that precise issue,” Chandler said. “So I want to create that differentiation. This is not the same issue that was voted on in 2019.”

Kniech then asked Angela Nelson, the city’s interim deputy director for homelessness resolution and housing stability, if there was enough supportive housing available for every person who needs it. Her question was in response to Sawyer’s comments that the city is already providing the same services that the safe outdoor spaces are bringing forth.

“No, we don’t,” Nelson said. “We are absolutely working to build that pipeline. And interventions like safe outdoor spaces help give people a platform of stability that meets them where they’re at, so that they can work towards those longer term solutions that Cole spoke to.”

Kniech said that although she supports the safe outdoor spaces, the efforts are still only a stepping stone. 

“It is an interim measure. If this is our destination, then we’re in big trouble,” she said. “But it’s not our destination, we just doubled down on our supportive housing pipeline to accelerate it and to generate more homes.”

But she stressed that if the city is only focused on long-term solutions and not on emergency solutions during the pandemic, people will die in the interim.

“Whether it’s hypothermia or hopelessness or what other ways that people die when they’re on the streets unprotected, I’m not willing to make that sacrifice,” she said.

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