The dried-up, yellow grass in front of the Colorado Capitol is littered with chicken bones, empty water bottles and food wrappers. More than 100 tents and tarp shelters strung to the trees are the temporary homes for at least 150 people, their coolers and shopping carts parked outside their tent flaps.
The tent town at Lincoln Park is one of several around downtown Denver that have taken root during the past few months as the coronavirus pandemic steered people out of crowded shelters and the city backed off its enforcement of the camping ban. An estimated 1,350 people are now camped out in Denver. One homeless advocacy group counted 664 tents staked out on a single night this month.
Homelessness in Denver is as visible as it’s ever been. And the longer that government buildings and businesses stay mostly closed, the sense in the camps is that they are here to stay.
“This is our residence now,” said Danelle Montano, 40, who sleeps alone in a gray-and-orange tent with a rug on the ground outside her door in Lincoln Park. “They have to give us all eviction notices if they want us to leave.”
Advocates for the homeless, business leaders and politicians agree that the current situation — which includes an 80-tent, used-toilet-paper-strewn camp surrounding Morey Middle School, plus dozens of tents on the strip of land between the sidewalks and streets across multiple blocks just north of downtown — is untenable. But what happens next is fraught with conflict.
Gov. Jared Polis said last week that he welcomes a sweep to remove squatters from state property. Denver Mayor Michael Hancock’s office is walking the line between federal public health guidelines that recommend allowing outdoor homeless camps during the pandemic and a business community growing increasingly concerned as downtown contemplates returning to work.
“There is a potential for a powder keg to meet fire,” said Roger Wood, 27, who sleeps along Speer Boulevard, talking about the conflict he anticipates between authorities and people who are homeless. He moved from Arkansas about two months ago and has been earning money by answering Craigslist ads to help people move. “People have to accept that these are extenuating circumstances.”
Homeless advocates, including the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless and Denver Homeless Out Loud, who are bringing water and coronavirus tests to the camps, say it’s never been more obvious that Colorado needs better long-term solutions, mainly affordable housing. Sweeping the camps and booting people without homes out of downtown, advocates say, only pushes them to the underpasses, along the river paths and out to the suburbs.
The most optimistic are hoping that the current downtown scene will evoke more compassion from the community, including a cooling of the “not-in-my-backyard” outlook on homeless shelters and affordable housing.
“For some people, they see that need and they are repulsed,” said Britta Fisher, who has run the city’s Department of Housing Stability since it was created in January. “Others are motivated to act. None of us want to see this desperate need. We want to see people housed and healthy.”
A short-term, coronavirus-age solution to open sanctioned outdoor shelters, similar to the tent camps but regulated, is causing an uproar, however.
The first proposed site for the “Safe Outdoor Space” concept was the parking lot of the Denver Coliseum, in the mostly Latino neighborhood of Elyria-Swansea in north Denver. Residents there are already worn out by two auxiliary shelters — a 600-bed shelter for men at the National Western Complex and a 300-bed shelter for women inside the Coliseum. Both shelters were set up during the pandemic as downtown-area shelters and nonprofits that provide meals and services reduced their capacity in the era of social distancing.
A triple shooting, trench fever and an attempted assault
Clearly, homelessness was a crisis before COVID-19. But more than before — as the tent cities grow, city crews haul away piles of trash, and some people without homes are peeing and defecating outside their tents — the crisis is seen as a public health issue rather than a condition of the less fortunate.
People have always camped outside at night in Denver, but many of them spent their days at the public library or recreation centers or day shelters — places that have closed during the pandemic. Now, more people who are homeless set up camp and stay put all day.
“I wake up every morning thinking about this and I go to bed every night thinking about this,” said Denver City Councilwoman Robin Kniech, who is proposing a 0.25% city sales tax that would raise $40 million per year to address homelessness. “It’s the third pandemic,” she said, counting coronavirus and racial injustice as the other two.
Money raised from the tax would go toward shelter innovations and housing, plus tiny homes and safe parking sites.
In a three-year period, Denver’s social impact bond program helped 330 people get off the streets and placed them in housing funded by the public-private partnership. The Denver Day Works program has put 403 people back to work by giving them work experience or permanent jobs, including cleaning up city parks. More than 1,950 city-funded affordable housing units are now under construction, and 1,315 are in the planning stages.
None of this has been enough so far.
The programs work, Kniech said. It’s a problem of scale. Even the proposed sales tax dollars wouldn’t cover the need, she said.
“Only new places for people to live and sleep will address street homelessness. Period. That’s the cure,” the councilwoman said.
At Lincoln Park last week, as the morning sun blazed and people slept in their tents or sat talking in groups, outreach workers from the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless walked through the camp offering coronavirus testing. Anyone willing to stand in line for both a virus test and an antibody test received a $15 gift card to King Soopers.
Outreach worker Samantha Camerino, wearing a mask, weaved through the tents, calling out, “Have you heard about the coronavirus testing?” One man was injecting drugs into his arm just inside of his tent flap. A woman squatted on the ground to relieve herself.
Denver Parks and Recreation recently placed a row of portable toilets on the east side of Civic Center Park, across the street from the camp. Still, some camp residents don’t use them.
There was a triple shooting that killed one person at the camp in front of the Capitol last week. And the week before, health officials said they were investigating a handful of cases of trench fever, a rare disease transmitted by body lice and found in soldiers during World War I. The cases were among people who were homeless in Denver.
The situation is “out of control,” said Tami Door, CEO of the Downtown Denver Partnership, a nonprofit funded by about 700 business members. Nowadays, she gets multiple calls each day from business owners who are preparing to send their workers back to downtown offices.
“The encampments in our center city and for that matter throughout our city are out of control,” she said. “It would appear the individuals who have set up these encampments have a total disregard for any of the rules.”
Door has been walking through the camps about every other week, and last week saw a make-shift wall of sheets several feet high along the edge of road near 22nd and Champa streets. The camp, she said, also had two full-size refrigerators, a microwave and a couch. A Colorado Sun reporter saw the cloth wall, plus portable gas grills, couches and chairs along 22nd Street.
“We all look at a situation and know when it has surpassed any level of order and we are far beyond that right now,” Door said. The Downtown Denver Partnership, which helped the city raise $15 million for shelter expansions last year, wants to “strike a balance between empathy and solutions and obeying the law,” she said.
Residents in the Capitol Hill neighborhood near the Morey Middle School encampment have been calling city officials for weeks, complaining that the camp of about 100 people has become a safety issue. Tents line the public-right-of-way space between the street and the sidewalk outside of the school, and there are laundry baskets and boxes filled with belongings.
Lara Lee Hullinghorst, a lobbyist and daughter of former Colorado Speaker of the House Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, has been among the most vocal to city officials. Hullinghorst, a Democrat who supports programs for the homeless, said she is too scared to walk out of her apartment without her husband or a friend after a man in the vestibule of her building grabbed her arm and threatened to rape and kill her. She isn’t positive, but believes the man lives in the camp across the street.
Hullinghorst, who is 5-feet-1, gripped her keys between her fingers and threatened to gouge the man in his testicles and thigh if he didn’t let her go. She escaped with bruises and scratches, and a fear that has not subsided.
“I miss my neighborhood so much,” Hullinghorst said, choking back tears as she recalled how much she loved the “quirky, Bohemian oasis” near 14th Avenue and Emerson Street. She’s concerned too, she said, that people who are new to the area and want to live lawlessly in the camp are a danger to those who are homeless and lived in Capitol Hill before the pandemic.
“We have allowed the situation to get so out of control,” she said. “It’s a health and safety problem now. It’s not about whether we care about the homeless. Of course we do.
“The city let this get out of hand.”
“Not a simple matter of removing people”
The governor publicly stepped into the tent city conversation last week when he said during a news conference that he had asked the mayor and city council to clean up the encampments.
And at Polis’ request, Denver public safety officials granted the Colorado State Patrol authority to enforce city ordinances — like the camping ban — on state property. The encampment in front of the Capitol is state property, as is the land around the governor’s mansion where dozens of campers had staked their tents before moving out last Friday.
“They are welcome to come onto our property and remove tents. It doesn’t seem to me that that’s being enforced right now,” Polis said. “I thought Denver voters voted for the camping ban … I don’t follow Denver politics.” (About 80% of Denver voters in May 2019 voted to keep the overnight camping ban in city parks and along streets.)
The mayor’s office retorted that solving the problem isn’t as simple as sweeping away the campers.
“The mayor has, on numerous occasions, offered to brief the governor and his staff on Denver’s strategy to address the challenge of homelessness, including effective alternatives to encampments,” mayor’s spokesman Mike Strott told The Colorado Sun. “We are looking forward to briefing the governor and are confident that he will appreciate the complexity of this challenge. It’s not a simple matter of removing people, especially in the midst of a pandemic.”
Fisher, head of Denver’s Department of Housing Stability, said the city’s vision for solving homelessness has only been reinforced by the pandemic.
“Health and housing are very much intertwined and the COVID crisis has illustrated that stark reality,” she said. “We have never taken our foot off the gas in working to create and preserve affordable housing.”
Long before the first case of coronavirus in Colorado, the city was working on a plan to move to 24-hour sheltering, a significant shift from the way many homeless shelters have long operated — requiring folks to line up for a space each night, and leave the next morning with their belongings.
That pre-pandemic work helped the city create two round-the-clock shelters, which provide meals and services, on the fly this spring. Those sites, at National Western Complex and the Denver Coliseum, are temporary and, as of now, the National Western is scheduled to close later this summer. Plans are in the works to turn the Coliseum into a men’s shelter. A few thousand people have stayed in one of the shelters for at least one night.
Denver also pivoted to focus on containing the spread of coronavirus in shelters and in encampments. Through a partnership with Denver Health and several homeless organizations, the city has been testing those living in shelters and encampments regularly for the virus.
More than 1,530 people were placed in hotel rooms, either because they tested positive for the virus and needed to isolate or because they qualified for “protective action rooms” because they are over age 65 or had health conditions that put them at high risk.
As the pressure builds to clean out downtown camps, the mayor recently asked eight members of city council who supported the idea to suggest spots for a “safe space outdoors” camp in their own districts.
“We need to look at extraordinary measures,” Fisher said. “Certainly having some services and sanitation in a more managed area would be helpful.”
Fisher said she is hopeful that tent towns across the city, displaying the need for a solution to the homelessness crisis in a very in-your-face way, will spur compassion and inspire people to support shelters and affordable housing — even in their own neighborhoods.
“We have neighbors in distress and it is apparent and it is outside,” she said. “This is a communitywide problem and needs a communitywide response.”
At the Lincoln Park camp last week, outreach workers from the Coalition for the Homeless sought out a woman who was seven months pregnant and offered her a motel room. She agreed, and left her tent to stand in line for virus testing and to chat with a medical assistant from the Coalition.
Coalition workers returned to Lincoln Park on Monday morning with about 100 envelopes containing people’s test results. Two people tested in the camp last week were positive for the virus.
People lined up for the test results, which came with another $15 King Soopers gift card, and outreach workers walked through the camp trying to find the two people who tested positive.
Lance Badten, 54, was relieved to find out he was negative for the virus. He came to Lincoln Park for the testing but doesn’t sleep there, preferring a much smaller encampment of about four or five tents a few blocks away. “There ain’t no bugs there,” he said.
The shelter where Badten used to sleep turned into a center for COVID-positive people, he said, and his second choice was too full and felt unsafe. So he decided to sleep outside. Badten, who used to work for Wells Fargo in the Cash Register Building downtown, lost his job because of his drinking problem. He gave a one-word answer when asked why he became homeless five years ago.
“Me,” he said.
Badten, a Native American, had picked a few sprigs of silver sage outside the Native American Trading Company near Civic Center park and tucked them in his front pocket for “good luck.” He left the park to head back to his quieter camp just after he opened his test results and swigged water from a gallon milk jug.
Coronavirus also has made it tougher for outreach workers, too. It’s more difficult to connect with people when the camps are so large, said Kevin Raleigh, program manager of the outreach team at the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. “When it’s a camp of 150 people, we can’t bring enough cupcakes for the whole class,” he said, noting that they often bring water or socks when they visit people living outside.
During the pandemic, the Coalition continued helping people who already were linked with a case manager, but its walk-in services were closed for several weeks. “Just a place to start, just the front door of our organization, hasn’t been in existence,” Raleigh said. Since reopening, there has been a line out the door every morning.
“That’s how much pent-up demand there is,” he said.
The Coalition doesn’t advocate that people should be allowed to camp out anywhere at any time, but it is supporting regulated outdoor spaces.
“The visibility of this is new for everybody,” said Cathy Alderman, vice president of communications for the Coalition. “I’ve had big concerns about the city opening up and what that could lead to. Interaction and conflict.”
“We can’t just keep hiding people”
There is no official data on whether there are more people who are homeless in the city than there were before coronavirus. But it seems pretty obvious to homeless advocates that there are.
The Metro Denver Homeless Initative’s “point-in-time survey,” which involves dozens of volunteers spending one night in January counting everyone sleeping in shelters or outside, found an increase of 228 people experiencing homeless in Denver this year compared with last year. The group counted 4,171 in 2020 compared with 3,943 in 2019, according to results released this month — but that count happened before the pandemic.
Denver Homeless Out Loud, a nonprofit that opposes the camping ban, found 30 encampments and 664 tents — many with two or more people inside — during its recent count. The group estimated more than 1,300 people are sleeping outside. That’s not counting people without tents, those sleeping in building entryways or with a blanket on the ground.
People who are newly homeless, often because they lost their bedroom or spot on the couch at a friend’s house during the pandemic, are stopping by Homeless Out Loud every day to seek tents or other help, Homeless Out Loud organizer Terese Howard said.
The nonprofit, which began eight years ago shortly after Denver passed the camping ban, has been asking city leaders to provide portable toilets and hand-washing stations and not to sweep camps, per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention coronavirus guidelines. The group has provided some portable toilets but lacks the money to put them in all of the camps.
The encampments are allowing people to come out of dark alleys and underpasses and sleep where they feel safer, Howard said. “That visibility is actually key for people’s safety and wellbeing, no matter how much our neighbors will fuss about it or be uptight about it,” she said.
Before the pandemic, there was “constant police pressure” on the homeless to move their beds and belongings as they were “chased from from block to block,” Howard said. “By and large, the city has stepped back from the constant camping-ban enforcement that they used to do.”
“If there is a better time to actually make housing attainable then I don’t know what it is. The answers are there. We just need the political will. We can’t just keep hiding people and pretending we don’t have this crisis.”
Some Denverites are pointing fingers at the suburbs, alleging that reduced bed capacity during the coronavirus outbreak at shelters throughout the metro area pushed folks to camp downtown. Lakewood Mayor Adam Paul says it’s the opposite — people who are homeless have been migrating to his city, mostly along the gulch and near light rail stations. Each time Denver sweeps a camp, he said, “we see an uptick because people were pushed out.”
There are more tents in Lakewood now than there were a couple of months ago, judging by the mayor’s recent outing with the police department’s “community action team,” he said.
Paul agrees, though, that homelessness is a regional problem. He participated in a roundtable discussion set up by the governor’s office earlier this year, a conversation Paul said was dropped after the pandemic struck Colorado.
Lakewood has fewer than 20 permanent shelter beds and no family shelter — not nearly as many beds for people in need as the city has for animals without homes, the mayor points out.
“We’ve got to do something,” he said. “It starts at the top with our governor.”
Update: This story was updated at 12:50 p.m. July 28, 2020, to include that plans are in the works to transform the temporary women’s shelter at the Denver Coliseum into a men’s shelter.