Denver, CO

Opinion: Encampment life brought community to homelessness in Denver

David Heitz

I’m sure people wonder why anyone would want to live in a street encampment. It’s filthy, noisy, drug-ridden, and dangerous. Right?

It’s not always that way. I lived in an encampment directly across the street from the Salvation Army Crossroads homeless shelter. I was banned from the shelter for 30 days for smoking my medical cannabis outside, which I did not know was forbidden. That didn’t seem possible based on alll the other people who did it and never got into trouble. When I got thrown out of Crossroads, I went outside and never went back inside. That is, until the police arrested me, and I ended up at Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo, and then later, Fusion Studios, where I live now.

People constantly sound the refrain that homeless people live in encampments because they can’t follow the rules in the shelter. I guess that’s partly true, given I myself got thrown out for smoking cannabis. But it’s not a generalization that’s easily made. The only reason I got into trouble is because the smell of marijuana is a dead giveaway. When people shoot up meth in the restrooms, there is no smell. No one gets thrown out.

My point is the shelters are not aggressive about throwing people out for drugs. They do play favorites among guests and there is selective enforcement of almost everything. No, people don’t flee the shelters because they can’t do drugs, but because shelters are dangerous, unpredictable, and extremely unstable for people with chronic PTSD, like me.

Try rooming with 400 other men with stinky feet and flatulence from the bean soup that was served for dinner. Imagine the chorus of snorers for those lucky enough to get some sleep.

Encampment life not so bad

Actually, when I look back upon my experience of homelessness, all of it was terrible. But the least terrible moments were when I was staying in the encampment across the street from Crossroads. At the encampment, there always was someone to talk to or smoke a bowl of cannabis with. As you get to know your neighbors, you begin to trust them and have them watch out for your stuff when you step away. Everyone at the encampment generally adds something for the greater good. Maybe some provide cannabis or other drugs. Some provide food (that was my role, I would attend multiple feeds and bring back extra food). Some always had hand sanitizer. Many would keep the encampments clean and tidy. Some are just good people, believe it or not.

Most importantly, I was allowed to use the portable toilet in the Crossroads courtyard even after I banned. So there was always a place to "go," unlike many encampments.

An innate desire for togetherness

It is natural for human beings to want to congregate. Being homeless is the most isolating thing in the world. Knowing you have nobody to count on is terrifying. Because homelessness is terrifying. Encampments provide a sense of community.

The problem with encampments is that they eventually get too big. You no longer know your neighbors, and the bigger the encampment, the more likely it is to contain bad eggs. Large encampments, in general, can be dangerous. I know many people who had no problem staying in a tent, even in winter. But when somebody in the encampment got stabbed, robbed, or otherwise victimized, they expressed an interest in moving indoors and accepting offers of free housing.

It is the concept of community that keeps many people in encampments. As I have noted previously, Mayor Mike Johnston’s plan to “decommission” encampments and move entire groups of tents into housing together is new and different in that it respects that sense of community. I hope this translates into peaceful living at the hotels and micro-communities.

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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

Denver, CO

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