For Denver City Councilwoman Robin Kniech, it’s obvious the best way to help people overcome homelessness is to skip over emergency shelters entirely and get them straight into stable housing.
But facing the reality that the number of people who need help is far greater than the city’s capacity to add housing for them, she is willing to support stop-gap solutions.
The Safe Outdoor Spaces sanctioned camping sites model is a key tool the city needs to embrace, she believes.
“Our goal is to save lives, improve stability of people and to minimize disruptions to communities from unsheltered homelessness,” Kniech said at a committee hearing last month. “For our city to meet those goals, this is critical.”
The Colorado Village Collaborative will be before the City Council on Monday night seeking a $3.9 million contract extension to continue operating and expand on its Safe Outdoor Spaces model through the end of 2022. The money at stake is federal, coming from Denver’s American Rescue Plan Act funding.
Using ice fishing tents on properties outfitted with power, portable toilets, handwashing stations and regularly visited by service providers, the nonprofit says it has helped 47 people transition from homelessness to more stable housing since getting up and running in December 2020.
With a contract that would provide a more than four-fold increase over the roughly $900,0000 the city has given the program to date, the organization projects it will be able to shelter 370 people over the course of 2022 and aims to get 90 of them into stable housing.
The contract would allow Colorado Village Collaborative to expand from three sites now to four at some point during the year. It would also provide money for new employees dedicated to helping residents navigate the resources available to them and to provide peer support, representatives say.
Denver officials recently participated in a point-in-time count of people staying in emergency shelters and living in tents, cars and other situations deemed unfit for human habitation. Those people are classified as “unsheltered.” The results of the count won’t be released until later this year but a rough estimate from 2021 indicated that close to 1,200 people were living on the streets unsheltered.
The Safe Outdoor Spaces model, often referred to as SOS, is still growing and evolving but Cuica Montoya, who manages the program for the Colorado Village Collaborative, can’t help but speculate on what it could do with more support. Two 50-person sites in each of Denver’s 11 City Council districts would provide the capacity to give almost every unsheltered person the option to live in one, she said.
“People want to see change around unsheltered homelessness and this would be it,” she said. “We need City Council to approve this contract. That’s the first step.”
For some opponents, the risks outweigh those projected rewards.
Terry Hildebrandt, a resident and business owner in the Golden Triangle neighborhood who regularly speaks at City Council meetings about homelessness issues, voiced his opposition to the sites during a recent public comment session. In the speech, reproduced in an email sent out by the group Citizens for a Safe & Clean Denver, Hildebrandt called for stricter rules at the sites. He wants Colorado Village Collaborative to check residents’ tents and bags for drugs and alcohol which are banned under the sites’ community guidelines.
“City Council, before you spend another $3.9 million with CVC, require more accountability from (executive director) Cole Chandler and his staff,” Hildebrandt said. “Require regulations for tent inspections and monitoring at the City-funded SOS camps to ensure they are drug-free. Require more unannounced inspections by City regulators to check for drugs with drug-sniffing dogs.”
Dawn McNulty,47, lives in the Baker neighborhood. The historic part of town has not hosted a sanctioned campsite but the neighborhood association board voted 13-2 in August in favor of supporting one if a suitable location could be identified.
McNulty’s two children both attend schools within walking distance of the site that opened at 780 Elati St., near the Denver Health Medical Center campus, in November.
The lack of legally enforceable rules around how the Colorado Village Collaborative works with and is responsible for the people who live around the sites upsets McNulty. So does the lack of transparency around the potential criminal histories of the people living in the sites, she said. She feels the City Council and Mayor Michael Hancock’s office has failed to adequately protect residents and businesses from the potential negative consequences.
“This is a bipartisan issue and well-intentioned, compassionate people are working on both sides,” she said. “We need to band together as a city. We must demand more of our city public officials. This cannot be a $3.9 million check without several stipulations and public health and safety assurances.”
McNulty has developed a list of nine points of considerations she wants to see addressed around every SOS site. They include setting specific lease term limits, limits on the number of residents, firm rules around proximity to schools, proximity to businesses and mandatory disclosure of any criminal or health risk incidents in the sites.
Some of these points are already covered in the nonprofits’ agreements with property owners hosting sites.
Montoya was chosen to be the Safe Outdoor Spaces program manager in part because of her past. She has been homeless and gone through challenges with her mental health, substance misuse and the criminal justice system, she said.
A key pillar of the SOS model is being low-barrier so that people who might otherwise sleep in unsanctioned encampments will come into the sites, gain some stability and hopefully start to move toward stable housing. A big part of that is respecting privacy, Montoya said.
“What we do is provide a safe space that respects their dignity and human autonomy,” she said. “We have community guidelines which are no drugs and no alcohol on site but we also don’t invade people’s private space.”
Privacy as well as allowing couples to stay together and people to keep their pets with them in their tents are unique parts of the SOS model that make it an important part of the city’s shelter options, officials say. It was because of the limitations of group shelters that officials went looking for something like them when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived.
Seventy-five-year-old Gary Peters is among the residents living in the SOS site on the Denver Human Services east office campus at 3815 Steele St. The military veteran has income from his retirement but spent seven years living at his own campsite before moving into an SOS tent in late 2020. He had a stroke last year that has hampered his mobility and he is now working with the Department of Veterans Affairs to get a housing voucher.
He previously had housing through the VA but preferred to be by himself, which is why he was camping. The SOS site has been a key bridge for him while he recovers from his stroke.
“I have no choice,” he said while sitting in his tent Friday. “I mean, I couldn’t walk to my campsite. This is shelter. Definitely shelter.”
The contract extension hasn’t won over every council member. District 5 City Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer has repeatedly opposed investing public money in the sites. At last month’s committee hearing, she questioned if the $3.9 million would be better spent on renovations to city-owned group shelter buildings to provide more privacy in them.
“(I’m) just not 100% convinced based on the lack of information and numbers on the finances that this is something the city should be investing in,” Sawyer said during the committee hearing. “This is certainly something, if private investors and private locations are interested in pursuing it, then it is in our zoning code and that makes sense.”
In that same meeting, District 1 Councilwoman Amanda Sandoval said she heard repeatedly from constituents that the SOS site on the Regis University campus has been a worthwhile investment of their tax dollars compared to funding sweeps of encampments downtown. The lease for that site was scheduled to expire in March.
“If you find another place in Council District 1 please feel free to reach out to me,” Sandoval said. “I look forward to that partnership. I am sad to see you leaving so soon.”
The Colorado Village Collaborative has since worked out an extension to stay on the Regis campus through June, Montoya said. That site, run in partnership with the St. Francis Center, had seen at least 11 people transition into housing with another dozen in the pipeline, according to St. Francis Center executive director Tom Luehrs.
If Gerald Horner and Ryan Cox had their way, the Safe Outdoor Space contract would be much larger. Adding one more site in 2022 is not moving fast enough to address the crisis of unsanctioned encampments in their Curtis Park neighborhood in Five Points, the two men say. Cox is the president of the Curtis Park Neighbors registered neighborhood association.
Theft, open-air drug dealing and fires breaking out in encampments are now daily concerns in the neighborhood. That is why the Curtis Park Neighbors has partnered with 12 other groups to push for SOS sites in all 11 City Council districts.
“What we want people to understand is there is not another alternative right now that is showing any effectiveness,” Horner said.