Safe Outdoor Spaces: Denver’s alternative to homeless camps

Problem Solvers

DENVER (KDVR) – City leaders aren’t opposed to all homeless camps, Denver opened two Safe Outdoor Spaces in June. The Problem Solvers paid a visit to both of them to see how the alternative sites are faring as an option for some homeless people.

One of these spaces, called an SOS for short, is located at Regis University, tucked in a parking lot between a soccer field and a McDonald’s. A chain link fence surrounds 55 tents, with an electronic pad that requires a security code to enter.

“We cannot currently meet the demand with the number of space that we have,” said Cole Chandler, the executive director of the Colorado Village Collaborative. The non-profit operates the SOS with funding from the City of Denver and a number of non-profit foundations.

“There’s over 1,000 people that are sleeping on the streets every single night in Denver but we know things don’t have to be that way. Through models like this we can continue to expand and offer safe dignified services to our unsheltered neighbors,” Chandler said.

Each SOS site offers electricity, porta-potties, trash cans and case managements services for residents like Bill Vigil.

“I was sleeping in an alley,” Vigil said. He was contacted by an outreach worker who told him about the SOS at Regis University.

“I can shower, bath, wash my clothes, sleep without having to worry about getting mugged, beat-up or knifed,” he said.

Regis University provided the land and moral support to make the SOS possible.

“I think we can be helpful in helping the model expand,” Jennifer Farley, the director of community relations for Regis University, said.

Farley said the school felt an obligation as a Jesuit Catholic institution to serve others.

Park Hill is the other neighborhood testing out the SOS model with a sanctioned 33-tent city set up in the parking lot of the Park Hill United Methodist Church.

Some neighbors opposed the site from the start and hired attorney Dan Burrows to sue the city.

“I don’t think that these are a legitimate solution to homelessness in Denver,” Burrows said.

Burrows argued that the city allowed the tents to go up without adequate public input or a long-term plan.

“We need to stop treating homelessness as an affordable housing problem and treat it as the drug abuse and mental health issue that it is,” Burrows said.

Chandler insists SOS does have staff members who offer resources to treat mental health issues and drug abuse.

“You know, originally I was nervous. I thought having two small children, it made me a little apprehensive,” Momo Wong, who lives across the street from the Park Hill SOS, told the Problem Solvers.

Wong has been won over by her new neighbors after living near them for four months. She hopes other neighborhoods will consider embracing SOS tents.

“If people don’t have to worry about where they lay their head at night and they don’t have to worry about a meal at least once a day, they have a better opportunity to look for a job, to seek out various social programs that they need. So far people that are NIMBYs that don’t want it in their neighborhoods, I feel like they need to address that,” Wong said.

The question is, will other neighborhoods step up? Regis University has agreed to extend its lease through March of 2022, the Park Hill lease expires at the end of December.

Denver Health has announced it plans to help operate a SOS at West 8th Avenue and Elati Street just west of the hospital starting Nov. 10.

The newest 12,500-square-foot SOS at Denver Health will offer a 24-hour, staffed and secure shelter for up to 50 people, who are screened and selected by service agencies.

The facility, which will operate for one year, will offer residents shelter, cots, food, supportive services and assistance for finding permanent housing.

“As an anchor institution, Denver Health must invest beyond its own walls to make a positive impact on the health of people in our community because to truly care for the whole person, we must address all social determinants of health,” Robin Wittenstein, CEO of Denver Health, said.

Colorado Village Collaborative and Denver Health will co-host an online community meeting on Nov. 3, from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. for area residents. Information is also available online.

Chandler said the City of Denver hopes to have four Safe Outdoor Spaces locations next year. The additional three locations have not been released to the public yet.

“We’ve had a dozen people through our safe house outdoor spaces connect to longer term housing options since they’ve been up and running,” Chandler said. “We have hundreds of case management appointments delivered at these sites. We’ve done daily COVID screenings and we’ve had a 0% positive COVID testing rates in these sites since their inception.”

The SOS sites at Regis University and Park Hill serve 100 people and cost about a $100,000 a month to operate.

With contributions in reporting from Carisa Scott, Serena Ung and DJ Summers.

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