Warning from Seattle as Denver considers city-sanctioned homeless camps

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DENVER (KDVR) — As the City and County of Denver moves forward with city-sanctioned homeless camps, there’s a warning coming out of Seattle about unintended consequences.

For years, Seattle has provided legal campsites for the homeless. Denver has worked to avoid doing that, but city officials say COVID-19 is no longer giving them a choice. Since mid-March, the pandemic has led to more illegal homeless encampments throughout the city, according to Mayor Michael Hancock. 

“The number of encampments, and the public health, and safety risk to people living in these encampments, and to the neighborhoods, [have] reached a tipping point,” Hancock said during a virtual press conference on Wednesday.

Denver is now out of good options after spending $24 million in emergency funds to create two 24-hour shelters and to secure more than 700 hotel rooms. 

The mayor said temporary campsites — where services will be provided — have become a best practice for cities across the country during the pandemic. But safety advocates say Hancock should be careful as to how city-sanctioned camps operate.

“There are very few of these that have actually functioned as they should,” said Seattle safety advocate Ari Hoffman. “Overwhelmingly, they have been a colossal failure.”

Hoffman, an active community member in Seattle, ran for a seat on the Seattle City Council after a camp near his synagogue’s cemetery led to a crime wave. Property damage to the cemetery cost his congregation roughly $200,000, Hoffman said.

“We were finding feces everywhere,” he said. “Needles everywhere, people were hacking into the utilities.”

Hancock will not say if he’s considering background checks for people who will be welcomed into Denver’s camps. Hoffman said drug and alcohol rehabilitation should be part of any entry process.

“They don’t check your background — nothing,” Hoffman said of the Seattle camps. “You can bring drugs, alcohol, weapons … anything you want with you.”

Hancock described Denver’s temporary camps as a bridge to more permanent housing. He said he plans to endorse a proposed sales tax increase designed to raise $40 million a year — dedicated to housing services and shelter for the homeless.

Denver has not announced the number of camps, how many people the camps will hold or where the camps will be located.

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