“I’m going to shoot him!”
The man’s shouts echoed in the street at 2 a.m. as he rummaged through his belongings for a gun. Screams and yelling erupted in the encampment on Pearl Street, where about 25 people are living in tents, keeping warm with makeshift fire pits fueled by propane tanks inside blanket- and tarp-covered structures.
In her bed in her street-level condo, about 10 feet from the row of tents and on the other side of a brick wall, 24-year-old Chloe — who feels too unsafe to use her last name in this story — was shaking with fear. She called 911. Again.
Chloe and her partner, Everett, called police the next day, too, this time because a man who was pinned against the black iron fence along the sidewalk and repeatedly pummeled in the head didn’t get up after he slumped to the ground.
What began last fall as a small encampment with a few quiet people who are homeless has grown exponentially since mid-December. Now it’s a temporary home in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood for about 20 men and five women, their tents lining both sides of the sidewalk and leaving a narrow path for pedestrians.
The block is strewn with clothing and spoiled food, and there are syringes and foil with the remnants of heroin or meth. Urine-filled soda bottles sit just outside the tents.
“It’s moving toward us. Every single day we look at this and get anxiety,” said Chloe, peering out her living-room window, at eye level with the tents just across the narrow patch of grass from her home. “A new tent every single day, coming closer and closer.”
Chloe, who waits tables at a nearby restaurant, bought the condo with her sister a few years ago and recently listed it for sale or rent. She and Everett are considering moving in with his parents. They’ve reached their limit of sleepless nights and anxiety about what’s going on outside their door.
A pile of human excrement sat on the ground outside their bedroom window last week. And after a Colorado Sun reporter left their condo, people living in the camp threw trash at the front door.
“There is blatant violence happening in broad daylight,” Chloe said. “Blatant prostitution. Serious violence. Guns. Obvious drug use. Needles everywhere. Feces. I know what’s going on. I hear it from our bed.
“I’ve heard people screaming bloody murder at 4 in the morning. I thought they were getting stabbed or raped.”
On the same chilly but sunny day last week, Sierra Wolf was rearranging her tent on the street outside Chloe’s window, scooting it into the public right-of-way space between the street and the sidewalk. A police officer told her to move it because her old spot was trespassing on private property in front of an Xcel substation.
Wolf teared up as she talked about her husband’s death in September. The couple became homeless after the pandemic ruined their plans to move out of state, she said. Their vehicle was packed but they never pulled away.
Wolf has a tent in the women’s city-sanctioned and monitored “safe outdoor space” a few blocks away, but she prefers staying with her friends on Pearl Street. She floats between the two camps.
Since the pandemic began, Wolf has endured five sweeps — five times that she had to pack up her tent and belongings when the city told her to move on.
But she is planning to move out of the sanctioned camp. She doesn’t like the rules — no visitors in her tent, no storage for the bike tires and frames she likes to fix.
“I’m being harassed,” she said.
Wolf feels safer on Pearl Street, where her friends protect her.
13 encampments counted in Capitol Hill District 10
The unsanctioned encampment in the 1300 block of Pearl Street, the area both Wolf and Chloe consider home, is within walking distance of the city’s two new “safe outdoor spaces,” where red and gray tents are lined up in tidy rows, there are toilets and showers, and staff is on site 24 hours a day.
The safe camp in the parking lot of Denver Community Church, near Pearl and E.16th Avenue, was full within about three hours of opening in December. Most of its residents had previously lived in an unsanctioned encampment on the same block, a place without bathrooms, filled with evidence of drug use and frequently lit up with flashing red-and-blue police lights.
All 39 people now in the safe space had been living outside in Capitol Hill, said Cole Chandler, executive director of Colorado Village Collaborative, which helped organize both sanctioned camps and runs the one near Denver Community Church.
Drug use is not allowed in the camp, though people are not kicked out for using drugs off site and then returning to their tent. People can be expelled for violent behavior or violating other rules, which has happened only twice. Camp organizers hold regular meetings with the neighborhood, and Capitol Hill residents so far have been supportive.
“We have neighbors that have turned, who were at first very opposed and now say, ‘This is great. Thank you,’” Chandler said.
Homeless advocates view the camp as a stepping stone. Already, two people in the sanctioned camp have been approved for housing vouchers, three have connected with Veterans Affairs for health care and housing services, two have started off-site sobriety programs and one found a job, Chandler said.
Residents can come and go as they please. Couples can double up in a tent. Dogs are allowed.
Still, some folks prefer unregulated encampments. And while there are none as huge as the ones set up this summer in front of the state Capitol or beside Morey Middle School, downtown Denver has multiple, smaller encampments this winter. Councilman Chris Hinds counts 13 unsanctioned encampments in his district, which is “ground zero” for the state’s homelessness crisis.
About 80% of constituent calls and emails to his office are about homelessness, and his main job is trying to find balance between the rights of business and property owners, and those who live outside. He holds live conversations on Twitter and Facebook every Friday, mostly about homelessness.
“I agree with basically everyone,” he said, “our current solution isn’t working.”
The city has dozens of programs that are making a difference, but it’s not just Denver’s problem, Hinds said, pointing toward failed national and state policy on affordable housing.
Some who live in the unsanctioned encampments prefer them. But there’s not room for them all in the sanctioned camps anyway.
The other safe outdoor space, in the parking lot by First Baptist Church and set up by the Interfaith Alliance, is full with 22 women. Plus, the spaces are temporary solutions during the pandemic, and are slated to close in May.
The two sanctioned outdoor spaces, plus two tiny-home villages, house about 100 people. The latest “point-in-time survey” counted about 1,000 people living outside in Denver, either in tents or with no shelter at all — and that was before the coronavirus pandemic.
One night last week, 2,172 people were staying in a homeless shelter or city-funded hotel room somewhere in Denver.
The number is proof, according to Denver’s Department of Housing Stability, that the city’s solutions for homelessness are working for many. Far more people are sleeping in shelters or a sanctioned camp than are in unsanctioned encampments.
Still, there are those who won’t budge.
“Freedom to do what you want”
Joshua Martinez, 34, has tried the shelters. “They’re crowded and flea-infested and dirty,” he said, sharing cigarettes with a friend at the Pearl Street unsanctioned encampment. He’s not interested in the safe outdoor spaces, either.
“It’s the freedom to do what you have to and not what you’re told to,” he explained. “For some people, it might be the kind of place they need. But if you are trying to make me feel like I’m safe and tell me who I can and can’t have around me? It’s messed up.”
Marcio Johnson, 43, runs a bike shop of sorts in the encampment, a row of frames and a pile of tires outside his tent. “I would rather be here because I feel like I’m on my own,” he said as he organized his bike parts.
Johnson, who said he has been homeless for three years after a “midlife crisis” that hit when his children grew up and moved away, loves the community in the camp. He feels safe because “someone is always awake.”
The campers told The Sun they’ve never had any conflicts with the people living in the three-story building right behind them, or the business owners on the block. But that’s one side of the story.
Multiple people living in the apartment building, crews working at the Xcel substation that takes up much of the block, and nearby small business owners have repeatedly called police, their city councilman and the mayor’s office.
Kevin Delk, owner of the West Indies-inspired restaurant Bang Up to the Elephant! on the same block as the encampment, said he is not blaming the campers for the current state of affairs for small businesses. Bang Up started 2020 with 76 employees; it now has 11 and is “functioning on the steam of its emergency debt.”
“These folks on our street were here before the pandemic, and will likely be here after,” said Delk, who also owns the romantic Beatrice & Woodsley on South Broadway and Two-Fisted Mario’s Pizza in LoDo. “We’re all facing this hard time together — with the good and the bad. I am, in no way, blaming these folks or using them as an excuse for the situation our business and our immediate economy continue to face.”
Put simply, he blames city authorities for their “ongoing lack of action.”
“These offices are pointedly responsible for upholding basic safety and health standards for all citizens, regardless of their socio-economic situation or means of shelter,” he told The Sun.
Bang Up’s heated patio — the only table service available when Denver was in red-level coronavirus restrictions in November and December — is less than desirable at the moment because of the encroaching encampment.
Two weeks ago, one of the campers Delk called “stressed-out” released a “torrent of pepper spray” toward the restaurant, resulting in everyone eating there to walk out, Delk said. Bang Up had to shut down for more than an hour to clear the air.
Some of Delk’s employees have quit because of “harassment, threats and feces in the alley” near the restaurant’s service entrance and trash bins. The trash pickup company has at times refused to come “out of fear of being attacked or accidentally running over a hidden camper,” Delk said.
For years, campers have come and gone near the restaurant, many of them friendly folks who were allowed to use Bang Up’s restrooms and even some who were hired to work there, he said. But the vibe has changed as the pandemic has dragged on, bringing an “angry and destructive” element.
Asked what he and his staff had witnessed in the camp in the prior week, Delk made a list: prostitution, two beatings, DIY propane-tank furnaces, heroin and meth use, and urine “bombs” (containers of pee) tossed onto cars and over the fence into the apartment complex courtyard.
“This is an immediate situation, right in front of you,” he said, “and it’s largely the outcome of neglectful planning.”
Outreach teams visit encampments multiple times per week
The city attempts to strike a balance between those who are homeless and the neighbors and business owners who live around them, but “depending on your perspective, you may think we are not reaching that,” said Britta Fisher, who heads the city’s Department of Housing Stability.
The mayor’s office has teams scoping out the camps for obstruction of the right of way and health and safety concerns. When needed, Denver performs a “cleanup” or a “sweep” — terms that have become political and signal what side a person is on as the tension has increased.
The city is awaiting a federal court ruling after Denver Homeless Outloud claimed in a class-action lawsuit that the massive sweeps during the pandemic, including the removal of about 200 people from the front of the state Capitol, are unconstitutional and in violation of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for coronavirus.
Still, another removal is planned for Thursday, this one of an encampment on East Fifth Avenue near Lincoln. The encampment is rough, with piles of trash, garbage bags of belongings and a line of tents crammed together between the street and the sidewalk. A mostly-full gallon of milk sat behind a tent in the gutter of Fifth Avenue last week.
The solution to the crisis is housing, Fisher said matter-of-factly. There are now 22 affordable housing projects with 1,598 units under construction, plus the city has plans to begin construction in the next year on 953 additional units.
Since 2016, Denver has housed at least 350 people through its social impact bond program, a public-private partnership that targets people living on the streets who are frequent users of emergency rooms and jail. The idea of the $8.7 million program is that taxpayers would spend less in the long run on housing and drug treatment than they do on health care and jail costs. Sobriety is not a requirement.
“For me, this work usually comes back to humans and housing,” Fisher said, noting that 20 million Americans — housed and unhoused — struggle with drug addiction. “It is incredibly difficult to get to a healthy place without that foundation of housing.”
Since last spring, when some shelters closed and many preferred to sleep outside because of the coronavirus, the city has provided 817 hotel rooms for people who are age 65 or older, pregnant or have underlying health conditions.
Still, Denver is lacking in housing and in long-term drug treatment facilities, Fisher said. In November, Denver voters passed a new sales tax to generate an estimated $40 million per year for a “homelesness resolution fund,” money that will expand supportive housing programs, shelters and outreach to encampments.
The city funds case managers at shelters, but also outreach workers who go looking for folks who are living outside or “sleeping rough” to talk to them about housing programs, Fisher said.
Folks choosing to live in unsanctioned camps are struggling, just like most humans, with the desire for community but also for autonomy, she said. “If we don’t have community, we are not feeling particularly healthy. At the same time, we also really want to feel autonomy,” she added. “That tension would not go away but it is much easier to deal with when housed.”
The Harm Reduction Action Center is focused on the stubborn encampments, too. The center, which has a needle-exchange program and offers access to treatment programs, has a robust street outreach team that spends three afternoons each week visiting encampments and drug traffic areas.
At the camps, the team collects used syringes and offers clean ones, gives out garbage bags and resource materials, and provides naloxone — the antidote to a drug overdose.
“Denver and Colorado are in our worst overdose crisis to date,” said Lisa Raville, the center’s executive director. In 2020, 284 people in Denver died of drug overdoses, up from 225 in 2019 and 209 in 2018, according to the Denver health department.
The pandemic has made drug use even more visible in the city, as many bathrooms — at businesses and public buildings including the library — are closed, Raville said. Many people who are homeless won’t stay in the shelters “because you can’t use in the shelters,” she said, “and most of the men’s overnight shelters don’t have doors on their bathroom stalls for fear of overdoses, which can be a dignity issue for some folks.”
“Failing on both sides”
Back in the summer, when a few people were camped out in the alley near their condo, Chloe and Everett shared their water spigot. Whenever folks showed up with water bottles and gallon jugs, the couple would peek their head out the front door, say hello and then turn the valve in their kitchen to make the outdoor water run.
But the number of campers grew, and they began inviting friends from other camps. They were showing up in droves multiple times each day with five-gallon buckets. Then the condo’s garden hose was stolen. “They took advantage of us when we were trying to help,” Everett said.
It’s been hard for Chloe and Everett to reconcile how their feelings about the situation have changed. They’ve lived in New York City. They are millennials who care about human rights and support social programs that get people into housing or provide clean needles. Chloe lost a relative to a heroin overdose.
“So many of my peers would be disappointed to know that I’m fighting against this,” she said. “But ultimately, these people are blatantly disrespectful and violent and doing drugs. I’m in a really scary situation.”
Chloe and her sister chose the condo because they loved the “grungy” neighborhood — the coffee shop that gives free coffee to people in need, the cocktail lounge right around the corner, and the eggs and donuts at the hipster Jelly cafe.
Now she’s lost track of how many times she’s called 911 for police or paramedics. And she has nightmares about standing in the street asking for help that never comes.
Another condo owner in the building told The Sun that the past six months have pushed him to sell after seven years on Pearl Street. Jon, who also didn’t want his last name published out of safety concerns, said he loves that he could walk to the grocery store and pick from “100 choices” for coffee or dinner in Capitol Hill and downtown, that he could park his truck on Friday and not touch it until Monday.
“Now I have a drug den outside my door that I have to go past every day,” he said.
Jon’s dog gobbled up a hamburger patty on the sidewalk by the camp before dawn the other morning before he could stop him. Jon stepped out of his first-floor condo last week to find a pile of trash, and when he scooted it out of the way with his foot, he uncovered four syringes.
“It doesn’t seem like anybody at the city cares,” he said.
The city pushed the campers out of the alley a couple of times, and the encampments briefly dispersed to other parts of Capitol Hill only to return within days. More campers moved in after Denver cleaned up the large encampments by the Capitol and Morey Middle School, neighbors said.
No one is winning.
“It’s not their fault. It’s not our fault either, though. I really do blame the city at this point for lack of response, lack of action,” Chloe said. “They are failing on both sides here.”