Denver’s sanctioned tent camp program could expand as Denver leaders weigh quadrupling funds

Denver’s sanctioned tent camp program could expand as Denver leaders weigh quadrupling funds
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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.

Andy Cross, The Denver Post

Safe Outdoor Space resident, Gary Peters makes his way to his tent on Feb. 04, 2022.

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.

1644239509 274 Denvers Sanctioned Tent Camp Program Could Expand As Denver Leaders

Andy Cross, The Denver Post

Safe Outdoor Space program director, coordinator, Cuica Montoya, center, talks with residents Gary Peters, left, and Max Hutchinson, right, at the Safe Outdoor Space on Feb. 04, 2022.

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.”

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