Denver could make temporary homelessness campsites permanent

Denver officials are working to make the temporary, managed campsites that popped up around the city during the pandemic a permanent tool for addressing the homelessness crisis.

The mechanism: a proposed amendment to the city’s zoning code that would bring the campsites, sanctioned overnight parking areas and tiny home villages under the umbrella of a new land use designation known as temporary managed communities.

Safe outdoor spaces, as the clusters of tents that have occupied fenced-in parking lots in neighborhoods from Park Hill to Baker are known, have been part of Denver’s homelessness response since 2020.

They were launched as part of the city’s efforts to mitigate the pandemic. They allowed officials to reduce crowding in traditional, congregate shelters, limit the spread of COVID-19 and prevent more people from setting up their own tents on city streets, said Councilwoman Robin Kniech. Kniech, an at-large member of the council, is working with District 10 Councilman Chris Hinds to co-sponsor the amendment.

The sites are now viewed as a critical piece of the city’s effort to limit illegal camping while working to scale up long-term housing solutions for unhoused Denverites.

“Our homelessness and housing crises continue and we need to sustain these spaces to fill the gap between housing and shelter going forward,” Kniech said.

With on-site bathrooms, trash cans, water, power, food and managers, the sites offer residents more options and safety than sleeping on the streets. The stability and regular access to services like housing counseling and case management at the sites have led to positive results, according to the city’s metrics.

Since the first safe outdoor space opened in late 2020, the camps and their sister concept, safe parking sites for people living out of vehicles, have provided temporary shelter to more than 515 people. Of those, more than 180 moved into a more stable, long-term housing situation, according to the city.

A draft of the new code language was posted to the city’s website Monday. Residents are invited to offer feedback via email ahead of a public hearing before the city’s planning board on April 5. Kniech expects the City Council to vote on — and likely adopt — the code change in June.

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If the zoning code is not updated, the temporary zoning rules that have allowed the sites to operate since 2020 will expire at the end of this year. That could impact plans being promoted by mayoral candidates who are proposing more sanctioned campsites around town if they are elected.

“We have to keep doing rapid re-housing, supportive housing and other permanent housing solutions but we are unable to do them to the scale that is needed. So this is about filling the gap,” Kniech said. “We know what happens. If we don’t have this strategy, we have unsheltered homelessness.”

The sites can accommodate couples and people with pets who might avoid standard shelters where they can’t stay together or with their animals. They also provide more privacy for people including members of the LGBTQ community that sometimes don’t feel comfortable in a congregate shelter separated by gender.

The City Council on Monday extended the city’s contract for Colorado Village Collaborative, the nonprofit organization that manages the safe outdoor spaces and tiny home villages around town. With $7.5 million in new funding (including $7.3 million in federal COVID relief), the collaborative is now set up to keep operating sites with room for up to 410 households through the end of 2024, according to a city news release.

The contract passed as part of the council’s consent agenda, signaling a lack of controversy and broad support. Some Denverites have worried the sites might drive crime in their neighborhoods and even taken legal action to try to block them, but Kniech said they are no longer the controversial concept they were when they were first introduced.

“This contract extension will help us to continue to serve more individuals in a dignified manner and connect them to additional services,” said Shay-La Romney, the Colorado Village Collaborative’s interim CEO.

Romney is excited that the text amendment proposes allowing the sites to stay in one location for up to four years, a much longer period than the leases the organization is signing now.

At first, Mayor Michael Hancock was skeptical of even the tiny home village concept, in which unhoused people are given their own modular housing unit complete with a locking door. After visiting the tiny homes and listening to residents’ stories, he said he now believes in their potential to get people into more stable housing. He supports the text amendment.

“I’m glad and pleased that is advancing and hopefully they will make it happen,” he said.

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