Denver, CO

Legal tent villages for people experiencing homelessness multiply in Denver

David Heitz
Three Denver churches have hosted safe outdoor spaces.Colorado Village Collaborative

Some people don’t see a problem with the fact so-called “safe outdoor spaces” house people in ice fishing tents.

Others do. “I do acknowledge these (safe outdoor space) sites are better than living on the street, but I am not one of these people celebrating people living in tents,” said City Councilwoman Kendra Black, who chairs the city’s Finance and Governance Committee. The issue came before the committee this week because the city wants to put a safe outdoor space on public property.

The plan is to create a safe outdoor space in the parking lot of Denver Human Services’ east campus. It is at 3815 N. Steele St. in the Clayton neighborhood. It’s an ideal spot for a safe outdoor space because people experiencing homelessness can easily access DHS benefits such as food help and Aid to the Needy and Disabled.

The city's safe outdoor spaces are run by Colorado Village Collaborative. Its director is Cole Chandler.

“There is no better place to host this kind of service,” City Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca said during an informational meeting Wednesday for her constituents about the proposed location. She said her district, 9, has lost low-income housing. “This serves people who don’t have homes.”

Safe outdoor spaces have rules including no guests, no violence, and no drugs or alcohol. A secure gate buzzes residents into the grounds.

Some say tents aren’t really housing

Black and City Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer have said they don’t believe putting a person experiencing homelessness in a tent is akin to housing. They essentially are being moved from tents on the public right of way into a sanctioned tent community where no guests are allowed.

Chandler calls the sanctioned tent communities "an outdoor individual sheltering model” and “not a campsite.” He points out it’s a solution that “reduces the harm of homelessness” by offering a shelter model for people disenfranchised by traditional models.

Assistant collaborative director Cuica Montoya said 80 percent of the organization’s employees come from challenging backgrounds. She said having staff that can relate to the clients is critical to the program’s success. “To be able to have a staff that represents the people they serve I say is our secret sauce,” Montoya commented during CdeBaca’s town hall.

“This is a practical way to serve our unhoused neighbors in a very dignified way,” Chandler said during the town hall. Each ice fishing tent comes with a cot, sleeping bag, electrical outlet and more.

“This gives people that individualized space that some people are looking for,” Chandler added. “It gets the previously unsheltered into a safe environment and out of public space.”

In a video on the collaborative’s website, viewers learn there is one portable toilet per 10 residents at a site.

Many prefer tents to regular homeless shelters

For many people, the sanctioned tents provide a place to keep their belongings and have some privacy. Traditional shelters warehouse people in giant rooms. You can hear coughing, breathing, and other bodily noises.

Shelters don’t allow couples or pets. Many people refuse to give up their pets to go into a shelter. Couples or friends don’t want to be split up. Having a partner to watch out for you and vice versa is key to staying safe when you’re homeless.

During the Finance and Governance Committee meeting, Black said traditional shelters should include pets and couples. She expressed concerns about an estimate of safe outdoor spaces of between $1,000 and $1,100 per month per person. The amount includes utilities including internet, three meals per day, laundry, hotel referrals, employment help, physical, mental and dental services.

City budgets $4.3 million for innovative shelter solutions

The Department of Housing Stability has $4.3 million budgeted for tiny homes, safe outdoor spaces and a safe parking space pilot program. The city is in ongoing negotiations with the collaborative about upcoming contracts.

Chandler told Black the collaborative so far this year has spent less than a million dollars and has housed 120 people. There still are six weeks left in the year.

City Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer said during last week’s Finance and Governance Committee meeting the collaborative had a relatively low success rate for getting people permanently housed from the tents. Only 14 percent have apartment keys now.

Impact of safe outdoor spaces tiny versus need

The scope of Colorado Village Collaborative’s work versus the need is miniscule despite its best efforts. In 2020, the annual Point in Time count of people experiencing homelessness tallied 996 unsheltered neighbors in Denver. That was before COVID-19 was in full swing, flooding the streets with even more people experiencing homelessness.

City Councilwoman Debbie Ortega said during the committee meeting clients of safe outdoor spaces ought to be taught financial literacy. “It’s an ideal connection at that location,” she explained of the Denver Human Services site. “I don’t know where we’re going as a city as we continue to look at sites, but I think this is a good way to help people get stabilized.”

Meantime, the collaborative has served 120 unique households in the 11 months it has been running. “We cannot meet the demand,” Chandler said. He said the group is working on a strategic plan for growth.

Colorado Village Collaborative employs 25

City Councilwoman Robin Kniech said larger sites are needed to accommodate more tents. Chandler said his staffing levels currently guarantee a ratio of one staff member per 30 clients. He said sites must be at least 12,000 square feet to be workable for safe outdoor spaces.

Eight full-time employees per site provide 24-hour staffing at each safe outdoor space. There have been sites at First Baptist Church in Capitol Hill, Park Hill United Methodist Church, and Regis University. Soon a site will open on the Denver Health campus for native Americans.
An aerial view of the safe outdoor space at Regis University.Colorado Village Collaborative

“The Regis site has been exceptional with folks,” Chandler said. “Same with Park Hill.” Chandler said most people stay at a safe outdoor space for four months, but some have been with the program since it began a year ago.

“It’s not to scale with the need but it’s proving successful,” Kniech said of the program.

Planning for growth underway

City Councilman Paul Kashmann asked Chandler if he would be able to ramp up operations quickly if needed. Several neighborhood groups in Denver have banded together and are lobbying the city to put a safe outdoor space in every council district – eleven altogether.

Chandler said the organization will be able to meet the city’s needs.

People are selected to move into the safe outdoor spaces based on encampment outreach. Trained social workers choose who will be offered spots. Only a handful of new people move in when a new site opens because most move to the new site from a previous location that then closes.

The Finance and Governance Committee approved Tuesday a one-year permit with the collaborative to run the DHS site. The permit still must be approved twice by the full City Council.

One resident at CdeBaca’s town hall said a safe outdoor space improved conditions in his neighborhood. “People use my hose to get water. On a very selfish level, it’s better for our neighborhoods. These people don’t have access to toilets (without safe outdoor spaces). They still have to go to the toilet."

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I've been in the news business 35 years, spending much of my career in editing roles at local newspapers in Los Angeles, Detroit, and the Quad-Cities of Illinois and Iowa. Upon moving to Denver in 2018, I began experiencing severe mental illness due to several traumatic experiences. I became homeless on the street for about a year before spending time in the state mental hospital. I am living proof that people can rebound from mental illness with proper treatment, even after experiencing homelessness. I consider myself a lucky guy to live in a great place like Denver. I hope my writing reflects the passion I have for living here.

Denver, CO

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