Four months and more than four inches of snow since Mayor Michael Hancock announced that Denver would create its first sanctioned homeless encampment, that promise has yet to materialize.
Numerous setbacks have left advocates frustrated and disappointed. Some blame Hancock for failing to lock down a location in the face of predictable opposition. Still, as winter approaches, they aren’t giving up on creating legal places for people experiencing homelessness to camp in Denver.
Two sites have been proposed, only to be scuttled after residents and businesses objected. Hancock could have stood strong on those sites but didn’t, said Cathy Alderman, of the Colorado Coalition for the homeless.
“This wasn’t a priority for him,” she said. “He was reluctant to endorse the idea, never put a lot of political will behind it.”
And the weather’s only growing colder.
“We’re running out of options for people,” Alderman said.
But that’s not a reason to give up hope or stop working toward Denver’s first sanctioned encampment, Alderman and others said. It’s as much a concrete goal as a symbolic one.
City officials maintain they’re working diligently to find the first encampment site and point to new shelter space and other efforts as signs of progress.
“At each point we’re learning more,” said Britta Fisher, Denver’s chief housing officer. “We’ve opened up temporary shelters to meet the need. … We want to continue to invite our unhoused neighbors to come inside, and they have been coming. Our numbers are up.”
Generally there’s support in the community but once a specific site is named, nearby residents and businesses balk, Fisher said.
While the first encampment has yet to materialize, Denver will likely need several to substantially help the homeless population, many have said. Each is sure to face opposition.
Hancock spokesperson Theresa Marchetta said the mayor is fully committed to supporting the encampments, called safe outdoor spaces. The work is part of the administration’s broader coronavirus response strategy, she said.
“We learned over the last few months that more community engagement is needed to explain that these sites are not the unsafe and unregulated kinds of encampments that we will not allow to persist,” Marchetta said.
When the mayor announced that he would allow sanctioned encampments — stressing their temporary nature — on July 1, he also unveiled local measure 2B with City Councilwoman Robin Kniech. That measure, on the 2020 ballot, would increase city sales and use taxes, raising millions each year to combat homelessness.
Kniech has urged Denverites to welcome, rather than combat, creative solutions like the encampments. But when asked about a lack of progress on the issue in October, the councilwoman — through a spokesperson — declined to comment.
Cole Chandler, executive director of the Colorado Village Collaborative, remains optimistic that the first encampment could still be ready before Christmas. Since August, the nonprofit has had the money and staffing ready to operate a site for six months once the city selects it.
“I’m disappointed in Denver, in our ability to think creatively and allow our values of inclusivity, belonging, health and stability to lead us forward on this issue,” Chandler said.
The first proposed encampment location at the Denver Coliseum parking lot drew significant pushback from neighbors, while the second in the Blair-Caldwell plaza drew more opposition from the business community.
The second location, in Five Points, had been endorsed by the Curtis Park Neighborhood organization, Chandler has noted. Plus, people experiencing homelessness were already living in the area and a sanctioned encampment would have cleaned up the space and kept it safer.
“What does it say about us as a people that we can’t make space in our neighborhoods for people who are already living there?” he said.
Five CEOs of Denver-based oil and gas companies wrote Hancock this month expressing concern for the homeless population downtown, signaling likely opposition to any sanctioned encampment in the city center.
“Collectively, we urge you to increase police presence downtown, enforce the Urban Camping Ordinance, and drive forward policies that will restore Downtown Denver — the economic hub of the Rocky Mountain West — to the vibrant center of commerce it once was,” the letter said.
Any location proposed will have pushback, and Hancock is the only one who can overcome that obstacle directly, said City Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca. She pointed to a lack of leadership from the administration — with which she frequently clashes — and said that Hancock even delegated selecting the sites to council members when his administration should have taken the lead.
Both of the rejected sites sit inside CdeBaca’s district.
“We shouldn’t have to fight each other about where it’s going to go,” she said. “This is the one instance where the unilateral power that we’ve concentrated in the mayor’s hands should be worth something.”
At the same time, Hancock’s administration has continued to clear out illegal encampments around town, contrary to the recommendations of federal and other public health experts.
CdeBaca questioned why city-owned properties like parking lots or recreation centers — which have been closed since March and will remain closed at least until April — couldn’t be used as temporary shelters.
She estimated that each time the city clears an unsanctioned encampment — colloquially called a sweep — the cost is at least $10,000. That money could be spent more wisely and effectively, she said.
“It blows my mind that we’d rather sit on empty space than allow that space to be a safe place for people to go,” CdeBaca said. “We’d rather spend the money shuffling them around.”
Fisher said City Council recently passed a measure that would allow officials to grant emergency zoning waivers on lots owned by the government and nonprofits to quickly erect an encampment. Recreation centers, however, pose a difficulty because of their designation as parks, she said.
And the city published a new request for proposals Wednesday, Fisher said, that could bring to light new site possibilities. She declined to discuss the sweeps.
Chandler said he’s focusing less on city-owned properties now and looking more toward private property owners.
“We’re down 0-2 in the count now; we’ve got to do something different,” Chandler said.
Opening the first encampment is important because not only are people already sleeping on the streets and in need of a safe place to stay, but it will set a precedent that hopefully makes subsequent encampments easier to launch, Chandler said.
He, Alderman and CdeBaca continue to express optimism that the city’s first encampment could still open this year.
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