Denver Safe Campsites Passed First Month

On a recent weekday afternoon, residents of the secure camping site in a parking lot at the Church on 16th Avenue and Pearl Street sat in chairs set in a semi-circle, making jokes, telling stories and smoking cigarettes.

The group varied widely in age, but its members shared a positive energy. One came out of her tent dressed in the costume of a cat with a hat; others played fetch with a companion dog. As they chatted, a few talked about working on their sobriety, while others talked about how much their feelings of anxiety have diminished since sleeping at the secure campsite next to the Denver Community Church.

“I feel safe here,” said Alan Mayfield, 42, who has been homeless for a decade and is one of 40 men and women who have moved into the new site run by the nonprofit. Colorado Village Collaborative last month. “It gave me peace of mind.”

Concretely, he no longer has to bounce from one camp to another to avoid a sweep. “I don’t have to worry about that at all,” Mayfield added.

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, service providers began pressuring Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration to green light the creation of secure camping sites in Denver. The Centers for Disaster Control and Prevention had advised municipalities not to sweep the camps, so as not to spread COVID. By setting up safe camping sites, the city could stay in compliance with CDC regulations and also ensure that people living in unprotected environments can access services, they argued.

Although it took a while, in July Hancock agreed to let service providers create such sites. After a few false starts hampered by opposition from neighbors and waning political support, service providers finally set up two places in December.

Cuica Montoya, the site manager of the 16th and Pearl, knew Mayfield and some of the other residents during his work as a peer navigator at the Denver Public Library. She and site staff have met the others, many of whom are chronically homeless, through outreach activities they have carried out in the settlements in recent months.

There were a few hiccups in the month following the opening of this site. Staff had to evict two men who shared a tent and did not observe the ban on fighting.

But there have also been real achievements. “I knew in my heart that it would be a success,” recalls Montoya. “But it was a much bigger success than I could have expected.”

Two residents have been connected to the unit and are waiting for their documents to be processed. Another resident is considering starting a non-profit organization that would repair old RVs and provide homes. And then there are other residents, including Matt Rigg, who are struggling to stay sober.

Rigg, 41, has been homeless and has struggled with drug addiction for years. At the end of December, while living in this secure campsite, he decided to get sober. “I feel like I’m being given an opportunity to grow,” says Rigg, praising his fellow citizens for helping him through difficult times, especially when he was in withdrawal. “It’s so great to have support, to have people to love me when I’m not able to love myself.”

And despite some opposition from neighbors who said they didn’t want a safe campsite in the Uptown neighborhood, Montoya says she hasn’t received any complaints since it opened. As Mayfield notes, residents work together to make sure the rules are followed. There is no authorized drug use in the open air; what someone does inside their own tent is their own prerogative, says Mayfield, calling the protocol a harm reduction approach.

“The staff here, they treat us like people,” he adds.

The tent camp across the street has disappeared; the people staying there are either now residents of that site or have decided to leave, knowing that the police will soon tell them to move. As a result, the neighborhood is less chaotic than it was before the site opened.

It was just a week after the city’s first secure campsite opened, in a parking lot next to the First Baptist Church, just south of the Capitol. This place is for women and trans people only. Operations there also went well, according to staff members.

“I was lucky to be able to do a few shifts there last week. Women like it a lot, ”says Kathleen Van Voorhis of Colorado Interfaith Alliance, an organization that set up the site in collaboration with the association Earth links. “We have women who are very excited to be on a housing list. We have working women who are newly homeless. ”

“We certainly have a large population of domestic violence victims there. We were very fortunate to have had trauma-informed care on site,” adds Van Voorhis.

Especially on the morning of December 30, when a resident was found dead in her tent. The 34-year-old’s cause of death is still under investigation, according to the Denver Medical Examiner’s Office.

Since the two combined secure camping sites have a total capacity of seventy, the City of Denver is recruiting service providers for more sites.

Meanwhile, the Colorado Village Collaborative says it has the green light from the city to begin setting up a third site on private land. The St. Francis Center will staff it, according to Montoya, who declined to say where it will be located.

But one thing is certain: it will quickly be filled.

Sally J. Minick

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