Denver, CO

Legal tent villages, tiny homes, homeless parking lots become permanent in Denver

David Heitz

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An aerial view of a legal tent village in Denver.Photo byCity and County of Denver

Legal tent villages, tiny homes and safe parking communities for people experiencing homelessness became permanent in Denver Monday as the City Council codified their use.

Councilmember Amanda Sawyer voted against the legal tent villages. She said requiring people opposed to the sites to appeal to the zoning board of adjustment is unfair. She said people in historically redlined communities can't afford to hire a lawyer.

She also lamented that American Rescue Plan Act money is going to run out and the city has no plan for how they will pay for managed sites then. Finally, she said housing has a roof, a key, and a door.

Sprung out of pandemic

The so-called “safe outdoor spaces” for people experiencing homeless originally sprouted as a response to the pandemic. Because everyone in a safe outdoor space has their own tent or tiny home, or shares it with just one other person, this proved to be a safer way to shelter people experiencing homelessness during the pandemic than cramming them into crowded shelters without walls.

Despite concerns by a few neighbors, the safe outdoor spaces have proven extremely popular. People experiencing homelessness frown upon traditional shelters, which don’t allow different-gender partners or pets. Many require people to check in for the night early, meaning evening employment is not possible.

Shelters detrimental to mental health

Many people experiencing homelessness live with post-traumatic stress disorder, and the congregate shelters with all the noise and fighting can be triggering. During a recent webinar on alternatives to homeless shelters sponsored by Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, a case worker said a client had a mental health crisis in a congregant shelter. She said he is doing much better at a safe outdoor space.

Safe outdoor spaces shelter 516 people

During the past two years, eight safe outdoor spaces provided shelter for 516 people, and 180 now have permanent housing, according to an April 18 presentation to the Land Use, Transportation, and Infrastructure Committee.

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The Colorado Safe Parking Initiative provides parking spaces to people living out of their cars.Photo byCity and County of Denver

Citizens still will have a right to protest safe outdoor spaces through the Zoning Board of Adjustment. But council member Robin Kniech pointed out those opposed to a site must point out where a zoning administrator erred in approving it.

Fire roared through a safe outdoor space last year, destroying several tents.

Tent villages now permitted on corner lots

On Monday, the council approved new regulations for the safe outdoor spaces, which the city now calls temporary managed communities. The zoning is “based on lessons learned from temporary managed campsites over the past three years,” according to the document. “The proposed regulations were informed by council sponsors, campsite operators, and staff from Community Planning and Development and the Department of Housing Stability.”

In addition to allowing the temporary managed communities in the parking lots of churches, public buildings, and other non-profits, they will be permitted on vacant corner lots. The lots must be a minimum of 5,000 square feet and at least one of the intersecting streets must be a collector or arterial street, according to the functional street classifications adopted by the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure.

Pop-up communities can stay four years

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Tiny homes have proven extremely popular among the unhoused community.Photo byCity and County of Denver

The new rules will allow temporary managed communities to occupy a site for four years at a time. If a site is open four years, then closes, another four years must pass before the site can occupy that space again.

Sites previously operated six months at a time before moving. Operators of the safe outdoor spaces, Colorado Village Collaborative, say the new rules will save large amounts of money on moving expenses.

Supportive services provided

The guidelines require operators of temporary managed communities to be a non-profit organization, a government entity, or a quasi-governmental entity. They allow the operators to provide “supportive services, on-site staffing, routine maintenance, or housekeeping accommodations including but not limited to facilities for secure shelter, guest check-in, food distribution or preparation, toilets, washrooms, showers, personal storage opportunities, and communal gathering, which may be provided on the same one lot or in mobile units parked on the right-of-way. If the housekeeping accommodations are contained in structures, such structures may be temporary structures.”

Housing people for $10,000 annually

While it costs as much as $30,000 to jail someone for a year, a safe outdoor space can shelter someone for about $10,000 annually, according to Kysha Miller of Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. LGBT residents often gravitate toward safe outdoor spaces due to rampant homophobia in the shelters, said Hamilton Nickoloff of Colorado Village Collaborative. He said they often have experienced “sexual harassment, stereotypical harassment” and find safety at the safe outdoor spaces. “There is a staggering number of LGBT youth experiencing homelessness.”

Concerns about crime: Facts and data

Many people assume the sites will become drug-infested and dangerous. Cuica Montoya of the Collaborative said she tries to “combat fear with facts and data.”

A recent investigation by the Colorado Sun showed that crime actually dropped in the neighborhoods where safe outdoor spaces are located. Linda Barringer of the Colorado Safe Paring Initiative said a church reported a reduction in vandalism and the theft of catalytic converters after a safe parking space located there. “This is not a free-for-all party event.”

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I've been in the news business 35 years, spending much of my career in editing roles at community newspapers in Southern California 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 proof that people can rebound from even severe mental illness with proper treatment. 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 in the Mile High City. You can email me news releases and story ideas at NewsBreakDave@gmail.com

Denver, CO
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