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HomeFeatured StoriesBuilding a Better Safe Outdoor Space for the Unhoused

Building a Better Safe Outdoor Space for the Unhoused

A recent point-in-time survey conducted by the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative showed the number of unhoused individuals rose by almost 13% from 2020 to 2022. That’s an increase of about 784 people from pre-pandemic levels. 

Wanda Fleury is one of over 30 residents at the safe camping site at Arie P. Taylor Municipal Center in Montbello. 

“I just try to be positive about everything around me,” Fleury said. “I want to be a positive person and be in a positive environment. his is only a bump in life. It’s not forever.”

Accompanied by her furry sidekick Palzoogie, Fleury led a group of architecture students through the camp to her repurposed ice fishing tent that she calls home for the time being. As the students take notes, she shows them her concerns and how she’s resolving issues that arise.

Although the fishing tents provide a sense of security, they present challenges. Those at the safe outdoor space said they need stronger insulation, noise control and better security. A group of CU Denver students are working to solve these issues. They are members of Freedom by Design, or FBD, a student-based organization serviced by the American Institute of Architects that combines professional practice and real-life situations and education. The group is working with Colorado Village Collaborative, which aims to bridge the gap between the streets and stable housing for those experiencing homelessness. Sean Gatzen is the current director of Freedom by Design, where he and his students continue the progress of designing shelters that began in 2020. 

“We’re trying to make sure that this structure that we built makes sense for pretty much all walks of life,” Gatzen said. “And so you take all of that and try to put it into something, it will probably end up being very closely looking like a box and a fairly simple structure to build. But ideally, and hopefully, we can make it beautiful and something that when someone does end up in this structure, they feel safe, warm and comfortable.”

The group’s prototype will sit unoccupied at the Arie P. Taylor site for another eight months. Its location provides an opportunity for feedback and testing from current residents. Over the last year, the group has been improving the shelters with suggestions from the safe camping site’s residents. Although residents aren’t staying in the prototype, they often enter it and leave with a new idea to bring back to Freedom by Design and the Colorado Village Collaborative. 

“The prototype isn’t just a design,” Gatzen said, “It is someone’s home.” 

The current design is a wood and canvas structure—what can essentially be described as a very tall tent. One of the hurdles for the group is producing a cost-effective product for the city. Over the last 12 months, the ten students have had to consider how to fund the cost of creating 50 shelters for the safe outdoor site, as well as comply with Denver safety codes and individual comfort.  Gatzen emphasized the importance of creating a universal design throughout the 12 months the prototype is being tested. 

“We’re trying to find a structure that is affordable for CVC and nonprofits,” Gatzen said. “So what’s really fun now is CVC has approached us again. And we are looking at doing a hard-sided structure, versus that tensile membrane that we used on the first one.”

Together Freedom by Design and Colorado Village Collaborative continue their research to create a shelter that fits ethical, accessible and affordable standards. Gatzen has set goals for the team to accomplish as they approach their deadline—adding final touches to the prototype by the summer, fabrication by the end of the year and final design by spring 2024. 

These “final” touches will result in the presentation of the prototype to housing organizations. Gatzen stated that although it may not be a final evolution of their design, it’s an acknowledgment of necessary changes to the shelters. 

“We’re hopefully going to still have something to present to the City and County of Denver, to say, ‘Hey, this is something we do.’ We still think like this is a piece of the code, that could be rewritten in a way to help save money, to provide shelter, to really help move these types of organizations forward to help fill this tiny little niche in helping the unhoused.”

Gatzen explained how conversations are a big piece of the progress on this project. 

“It’s ten people in Freedom by Design but also 100 people who are willing to help us make this happen through donations, funding and volunteering—all of which makes this project and design very community-based.”

Gatzen said it’s important for the Freedom by Design members to use their skills as architects and designers to help people who have experienced trauma from homelessness. The goal is to provide safety, security and well-being as they transition and recover. 

“I think that is a fantastic goal,” Gatzen said. “If we have a purpose, then we can not necessarily solve, but we can contribute to helping solve challenges. I think if we can have two of these, or even one of these, where someone is having a full night’s sleep and is waking up in the morning feeling human again, we’ve done our job.”

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