Two North Denver safe space encampments for the homeless will be opening up in June due to the efforts of the Colorado Village Collaborative. On May 5, Regis University announced that its parking lot near 50th and Federal will be one location. The second will be at Park Hill United Methodist Church. Colorado Village Collaborative which has been seeking solutions for Denver’s growing homeless problem told an audience of neighbors in Park Hill in April that this was one way to prevent impacts of Covid-19 on those who are unhoused.
“We heard that unsheltered folks were falling through the gaps,” says Executive Director Cole Chandler, “and so we designed a response that would seek to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19 on that population.”
Colorado Village Collaborative is behind two tiny home villages, one in Globeville, and a women’s village in the Cole neighborhood, and now four safe outdoor space encampments. Both Pastor Nathan Adams of Park Hill United Methodist Church and Regis President Reverend John Fitzgibbons of Regis University say these camps are a way to serve the poor and put faith in action.
“Ours is a faith that does justice, a faith that calls on us to commit ourselves to combat indifference, walk with the poor and foster dignity among all peoples,” said Regis’ Fitzgibbons.
In a call on April 19 to talk to the community about the move to put a safe space in the Park Hill United Methodist Church parking lot, Pastor Nathan Adams said “we see this as an extension of the work that God is calling us to do. Love our neighbors, but specifically to love our most vulnerable neighbors. In this case, those that are experiencing homelessness.”
Although many of the almost 400 people on the call were supportive of the move, there was push back from some neighbors who felt the church had not communicated with them but rather “shoved it down their throats.” “I feel like it’s all being sugar coated,” said one woman named Shannon, “and no one’s dealing with the reality of the problems which is trash, mental illness, drug use, all of those things are a real thing.”
Park Hill neighbors also spoke about concerns for their children and for the kids who attend the church preschool. One neighbor, who wouldn’t give her name, said “what we’re concerned about is things spilling outside.” A woman named Brooke said she had mixed feelings. “How selfish it is of us to say we support it, but not in my neighborhood.” She also worried about “what kind of sketchiness could potentially be happening that my children are now going to be witnessing.”
On Saturday morning, May 1, Cole Chandler, was meeting members of the Park Hill neighborhood to show them the Pearl Street Camp on Capitol Hill which housed over 30 people including couples. It was part of the outreach to help Park Hill neighbors understand what a camp would look like. Bucket List Community Café went along on a tour. There was colorful outdoor fencing to keep the camp private. Bright red tents complete with power for fans and heat were lined up in neat rows. A truck was outside so residents could take showers. There were porta potties, hand washing stations and trash cans. The camp was clean, had security and Cole said volunteers were on duty 24/7. He also added that no one in the two camps tested positive for Covid, and 32 homeless got vaccinations.
Mark Montez aka “Shorty” was helping himself to coffee inside a tent that served drinks and snacks. “I was homeless 11 years on the streets,” he said. “If it wasn’t for them I’d probably still be on the street drinking and not even getting a job or anything.” Another man named Max, wearing a sunny yellow dress, a wide brim hat and flip flops, sat under a tent with his neighbors and a dog named Muttley. “I’m homosexual and my family doesn’t approve.” Max says he feels much safer inside the camp rather than a shelter or on the streets. “Getting woken by getting kicked in the head by a cop is not the best thing.”
Although no violent or sexual offenders are allowed in the camps there are those who have been on the streets for years and have addictions. “We don’t exclude chronically homeless, our site currently is about 40% people that are newly homeless and 60% that are chronically homeless, we don’t allow drugs or substances at the site. But this is a harm reduction model. And we do certainly have people that are living with an addiction that are a part of this community,” says Chandler. On the way out of the tour, one person saw a drug deal going across the street along a fence near boarded up Tom’s Diner.
“The Denver Police Department has said that this site has not led to any increase in criminal activity in the area and then we’ve had zero calls for police service to the site,” says Cole. “We are certainly taking seriously concerns about children and families. And we’re making strong commitments to ensure safety. One of the things that we’re going to do is hire private security personnel that’s going to monitor the overall campus. And that’s something that we’re doing in order to be good neighbors.”
Meetings to explain the safe camps to neighbors are ongoing. The next ones for Park Hill are on Thursday, May 13 from 7-8:30 pm and Saturday May 15 from 10-1130 am on Zoom. For Berkeley area residents interested in learning more about the Regis University site, Chandler will host an open house at the existing site at 1595 Pearl Street in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood on May 8. He also will host two community information meetings via Zoom on May 15 and May 20. For more information on both Safe Outdoor Spaces go online at https://www.coloradovillagecollaborative.org/safe-outdoor-space.