Denver, CO

Denver council discusses tent villages’ future

David Heitz
Photo byColorado Village Collaborative

A Denver City Council committee had an extensive discussion Monday about the future of so-called safe outdoor spaces in the city, or legal tent villages that house people experiencing homelessness.

The Budget and Policy Committee discussed with city staff making changes to the zoning code to permanently allow the tent villages. They currently operate on eight sites around the city with temporary permits that expire soon.

The proposed zoning changes build so-called “temporary managed sites” into the zoning code.

City staff said the safe outdoor spaces have proven popular with some segments of the homeless community, particularly couples and people with pets. In some shelters pets are now allowed, but they cannot stay with their owners. Shelters also don’t allow couples. Safe outdoor spaces welcome pets and couples.

Councilmember Chris Hinds said the Colorado Village Collaborative, which operates the safe outdoor spaces, provides a vital service to Denver’s unhoused disabled community. He said while the structures may be tents, the openings are large enough for a wheelchair to get inside.

Shelters not ADA accessible

Hinds noted the buses that transport people experiencing homelessness from drop-off sites to shelters can’t accommodate wheelchairs. Council member Kendra Black said that’s appalling and wants shelter operators held accountable.

Colorado Village Collaborative also operates tiny home villages. Some council members asked why they don’t focus solely on tiny homes since many council members have concerns about tents.

The fishing tents that house people at safe outdoor space sites cost about $400 each, according to Cuica Montoya with the collaborative. Tiny houses, on the other hand, cost up to $30,000 each. An in-between price point are pallet homes at $11,000.

The zoning basically codifies the temporary rules put into place for safe outdoor spaces. Kniech said city staff took what they learned and applied that knowledge judiciously for the zoning.

Providing autonomy

Kniech said safe outdoor spaces are popular because individualized sleeping spaces provide autonomy. She said gay and lesbian couples often have a difficult time finding a comfortable place to stay.

The zoning allows a safe outdoor space to be on a site for up to four years. But it must stay off that site for four years thereafter. The new zoning applies a one-to-one ratio. If a site occupies a space for one year, it only has to leave for one year before it can return.

Each site may have up to 30 sleeping units under current rules. The new zoning would allow more units based on lot size. Non-profits must operate the sites.

Expanding where safe outdoor spaces can go

Currently sites must have a primary civic use to host a safe outdoor space. The new rules would allow them on vacant corner lots of 5,000 square feet or more under row-home zoning standards.

Conditions can be attached to the permits. For example, the city may require a certain amount of security lighting.

Council member Amanda Sawyer wanted to know who ultimately would be responsible for settling a neighborhood dispute over a safe outdoor space. “That’s a good hypothetical question,” community planner Libby Kaiser responded.

Councilmember embarrassed by safe outdoor spaces

Black expressed ongoing reservations about the safe outdoor spaces. “I really struggle with normalizing people living outside in tents.” But, she added, “it’s been in my district two years, it has been fine, it has helped people and no issues.”

That said, the real issue is the shelters, she believes. “Why can’t we have our shelter be adapted to change instead of people living outside.” She said it’s embarrassing when friends from other nations come, and she explains to them the city pays for people to live in tents outside.

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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. You can email me news releases and story ideas at

Denver, CO

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