Early in the morning on moving day, a group of gentlemen stood taping and labeling boxes, joking quietly with one another. Their neighbors had just started waking up. Stacks of belongings accumulated in the southwest corner of Denver’s safe outdoor space at East 16th Avenue and Pearl Street. The men planned to be ready to move early, since two of them were due back at nearby Network Coffee House in time to serve lunch.
Tuesday, June 1: moving day for Max, Zeke, Kevin, Peter and Gary. Sure, packing was a bit chaotic. The tape went missing and Kevin commandeered the Sharpie® to create some leg tattoos. But they knew that by the end of the day they would be settled in at the safe outdoor space’s new location on the Regis University campus in North Denver. They heard it would be quieter there than at the set-up they were leaving, within earshot of Colfax.
Most residents at Denver’s first two safe outdoor spaces moved to the Regis University location on June 1st. Some—like the five early risers we spoke to—will move again in mid-June to a new site planned for Park Hill United Methodist Church on Montview Boulevard. A few others were able to time more stable housing moves ahead of this transition. When both sites and moves are complete, combined capacity will increase from 70 to 100, with the latest agreements running from June 1 through December 31, 2021. The population of the camps is supposed to approximate the diversity of those on the street. According to organizers the camp occupancy is 50% people of color.
“It’s a significant transition,” says Cole Chandler, Executive Director of Colorado Village Collaborative, “like any big change, it comes with some anxiety.” Residents will be further from the downtown surroundings many are accustomed too—amenities, healthcare providers, friends. But staff had been checking in with residents over the weeks leading up to the move, talking over plans and working together to get ready.
Thirty six people and their belongings (and a handful of pets), plus supplies for staff and community, are moving from two separate locations. Trucks and cars made several trips. For each resident, hours or days had been spent sifting through their possessions to determine if there were things they didn’t want to bring. Boxes, bags, and suitcases piled up. Plants, small chairs and shelves—each item labeled with a name on blue painter’s tape.
Colorado springtime insisted on its usual unpredictable sun-rain mix. By day’s end, residents, staff and volunteers were sweaty, some sunburned, many eventually donning hoodies or jackets as wind and chill settled in and rain fell. Max drew a line with his hand across a seam toward the top of his tent, “These red tents are meant for ice fishing. They keep the snow out. But see this here, it doesn’t keep out heavy rain.”
The day came with other hiccups like electricity that wasn’t yet flowing to the site, and a backpack that wasn’t labeled, and the resident who had a mid-day shift at work and didn’t arrive to settle in before rain threatened to soak her belongings. But an ample supply of teamwork kept things on track. Sack lunches (each with a special hand-written message) and bottled water sat ready for the taking. The new safe outdoor space has the same amenities as the initial two: bathrooms, hand sinks, meals, drinking water, weekly laundry and showers, and shade tents. As importantly: support services like 24/7 staff, daily wellness screenings, access to COVID-19 testing and a range of outreach and referral assistance (for housing, employment, benefits).
The Regis location includes 56 tents for up to 60 people, including singles, couples, pets, and people with disabilities. Each tent will have electricity and Internet within the week. And plans are in place for additional shade tents and ducted cooling in time for hot summer days.
Denver’s Safe Outdoor Spaces program was created last summer to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, connect people who are without housing to supportive services, and to reduce the impact of unsanctioned camps. While neighborhood tensions ran high leading up to the opening of Denver’s first two sites in June 2020, concerns quickly eased. During the day, residents set off to work or medical appointments or visit with a range of service providers. They spend time resting in their shelters, building community with one another in the shade tents, or filling out applications for housing or jobs.
But housing alone is a challenge. The National Low Income Housing Coalition’s March 2021 report, “The Gap: A Shortage of Affordable Homes” listed Denver-Aurora-Lakewood’s affordable and available housing at crisis deficit levels. The metro area falls 87,083 housing units short of what would be needed for households living at or below 50% the Area Median Income. And according to Chandler, there are 6,000 people experiencing homelessness each night in the Denver area.
Peter and Gary have found the Regis site after their shift at Network Coffee House. All five men we met early in the morning–Max, Zeke, Kevin, Peter and Gary–have done enough unpacking to take a few minutes to relax. “We haven’t heard a single fire engine yet,” Peter says, looking over his shoulder toward the fence blocking a view of Federal Boulevard.
Kevin heads back over to the front gate to help unload the last moving van. Their friend Gypsy, from the Pearl St location, has finished setting up their tent in the row behind them and is pulling up a folding chair to visit with Peter. The two work on a makeshift coffee concoction and try not to let the delay in the site’s electrical hookup get them down. “We’re good,” Peter says, smiling and sipping his coffee, “We’ll be just fine.”
Learn more about the project at:
Here are a few ways neighbors can pitch in:
Shifts from 9am-1pm and 1-5pm