One month after the first residents began occupying the tents at the Safe Outdoor Space (SOS) encampment at the Park Hill United Methodist Church, Pastor Nathan Adams says he’s been pleased at how neighbors have responded, volunteering to bring two meals a day and other necessities for the residents. “We’re hoping to do some social events here to get community folks, church folks, and residents together. We already had one open house and several hundred people came. It was great for everyone to talk with each other and see that we’re all human, just trying to do our best.”
That’s not to say there haven’t been challenges along the way. This spring, five Park Hill residents filed a lawsuit against Adams, the church, and Denver’s zoning administrator, alleging that the tent city would pose a danger to minors and school children. That lawsuit was dismissed in May, but two new challenges were filed with the Denver Board of Adjustment for Zoning. Rulings from those hearings had not been made public when this story was filed.
Adams said the decision to host the encampment came after months of discussions by church members who wanted to figure out what they could do to ease Denver’s housing crisis. “Our belief system is about putting faith into action. And one of the questions we kept asking ourselves was, if not us, who?”
Those church members ultimately met with the non-profit organization Colorado Village Collaborative (CVC), which operated a safe outdoor tent space in downtown Denver and two tiny-home communities in Cole and Globeville. It has since established another tent community at Regis University. The church members were impressed by the organization’s track record and decided to partner with CVC.
CVC Executive Director Cole Chandler says the idea behind the SOS tent areas is to provide safe places for unsheltered people to survive with dignity. He also says it’s important that these structured tent communities be located all over the city. “We’re trying to push back against this idea that poor people only belong in certain neighborhoods. No neighborhood is unfit to serve the poor.”
The “Safe Outdoor Space” strategy was adopted by the city in response to the rising numbers of illegal tent encampments that were erected during the pandemic. “There are many reasons that people struggle with the traditional shelter system. Sometimes the shelters are too big or people don’t feel safe,” says Angie Nelson, deputy director of Housing Stability for the city of Denver. “We wanted to diversify shelter options. How can we meet people where they’re at so we can get them into a more stable environment?”
Statistics for 2021 have not yet been released, but according the 2020 “Everyone Counts” survey, just over 4,000 people were homeless in Denver last year. That figure includes 2,036 people who were in emergency shelters, 1,089 people who were in transitional housing, and almost 1,000 who were unsheltered. The Safe Outdoor Space communities are designed to meet the needs for people in that last category.
Chandler says sheltering 1,000 people isn’t an insurmountable goal. “That’s what gives me hope. In just a few months, we’ve created 100 spaces for people. If we had a few more sites, we could help many more.” Chandler is searching for permanent space to develop these communities, since both the Regis and Park Hill sites will close in December.
The Park Hill site will ultimately house 40 people, although only about 20 people had moved in by the end of July. Part of that delay was due to the criminal background checks that are being conducted on every resident. Chandler thinks those background checks are unnecessary because of the numerous safety precautions that have been put in place and are discriminatory because “people who have gone through the justice system also deserve housing.” But the policy was a concession made by CVC because of pushback from some neighbors and because the encampment is near a childcare center.
The CVC tent communities have staff on site around the clock, both for security and to connect residents with services, so they can transition into more permanent housing. It is surrounded by a tall, covered fence with a locked entry. Only residents and staff are allowed in—all guests are prohibited. And there are other rules: no violence, no weapons, no drug or alcohol use, no disruptive behavior. Chandler says so far, he’s only received a few complaints about the Park Hill site including one about the smell of cigarette smoke and another about a food wrapper that was left in the alley.
Safe Outdoor Space encampments are authorized in Denver based on an emergency zoning decision by City Council during the pandemic. That decision has now been extended to allow the SOS camps to continue until December 2023.
That’s what has people like Florence Sebern upset. A Virginia Village resident, she helped organize a group called Safe and Sound Denver that is trying to fight the city’s group living amendment, which allows up to five non-related adults to live together in a single-family home. The group is also opposed to the Safe Outdoor Space encampments. Sebern says the city zoning administrator hasn’t done the necessary impact studies or gone through the necessary public comment period to make such a zoning change. “I object to this from a process standpoint. Our neighborhood associations should have been told. There’s a chain of communication that was not followed.”
Sebern also objects to the large sums of money that have been spent on these temporary solutions. CVC will receive $900,000 from the city to operate the SOS areas. “I think the money could be better spent for walls and a roof. Are we really going to get behind what is essentially a better tent in a cage?”
Rev. Adams is the first to admit that the SOS tent areas are not “THE” solution to the homeless crisis. “We need a multi-pronged approach to address all the things that lead to homelessness. Temporary outdoor spaces is just one small part of that.”
Next month, the city of Denver plans to release for public comment a comprehensive five-year plan to combat homelessness.
Front Porch photos by Steve Larson