When Wanbli Cabrera and several of her family members started camping outside of Four Winds American Indian Council at West Fifth Avenue and Bannock Street in Denver five months ago, they were running out of options.
They had been camping on the streets of Denver for years — two, in Cabrera’s case, and longer for some of her relatives. They’d find places that worked for a while, until the city forced them to pack up their things and move — often no more than a few blocks away. It had happened to Cabrera maybe seven or eight times; each one was traumatic.
Hundreds of people in Denver are in similar situations — facing chronic homelessness that is at once unsustainable and without an obvious exit. Housing is increasingly unaffordable, and subsidized, long-term housing is frequently unattainable. The problem is especially acute in the city for Indigenous people, who are overrepresented in homeless encampments and in shelters and motels. A long history of forced displacement of Native people continues to take new shapes.
Since the start of the pandemic, a national civil rights movement has brought some greater visibility to Indigenous struggles, including calls for recognizing Native rights to the land — including in urban areas like Denver, where most Indigenous people live.
Cabrera didn’t particularly have the idea of Native self-determination in mind when she and her sister Sharon Barth (biologically unrelated but both Lakota from South Dakota) chose to camp at Four Winds, a community center run by and for Indigenous people.
“We figured if we came here, they could help us more than other places could,” Cabrera said.
That turned out to be true, she said. Four Winds welcomed the campers, arranging for a port-a-potty to be placed at the site, and connecting them with water and electricity.
And over the next few months, the campsite turned into something bigger, and then smaller, and then different: an Indigenous home in the middle of a city of settlers, with all the hope and conflict that came along with that.
Lutheran synod returned land taken from Indigenous people
Four Winds sees it as well within its mission — and its rights — to house Native people. The organization’s red-brick building was once owned by the Lutheran Church, whose members began to view it as land that was taken from the Indigenous people who lived here first. In 2015, the Lutheran Church Rocky Mountain Synod gave the land back, under the care of the nonprofit.
Since then, “we really transformed the church’s previous uses of assimilation and conversion to a vision of Indigenous liberation,” said Mateo Parsons, the Four Winds board chair, who is Apache, Yaqui and Tarahumara.
The organization operates a community garden, hosts classes, and makes its spaces free for Native people to use for religious ceremonies and fundraisers, memorials and wakes.
During the summer, the camp outside of Four Winds grew.
Walter Lee Otterman Hawkins, whose Lakota name is Buhingla Mato, or Charging Bear, moved in to provide security for his relatives there, he said.
Hawkins was adopted as a baby into a white family, and describes reconnecting with the Native community in Denver as a kind of homecoming. Through his battles with drug and alcohol addiction, the Native community has provided kinship, ceremony and connection. That was true at Four Winds, too. It felt like something important was happening.
“I dubbed the camp the Denver Indigenous Refugee Camp,” Hawkins said. “That’s what it is. We are unfairly targeted in our own land.”
The city saw it differently.
The camp was a public health hazard, said Nancy Kuhn, spokesperson for the Denver Department of Transportation and Infrastructure, and it was blocking the sidewalk. It was unsafe not only for the general public but for the campers, which included a family with young children, she said. In August, the department posted notice that it would sweep the encampment.
Four Winds cried foul, and asked city officials to reconsider.
“Our people are disproportionately represented in homeless populations,” Parsons said.
That’s likely a significant undercount, says Johnny McCraigie, who is helping lead an effort by the Native American Housing Circle to produce a more accurate assessment of Native housing needs in Denver. The circle is a coalition of Native-led organizations formed in 2019 in response to a dire need in the city, and the assessment is seen as a first step toward long-term solutions.
A long history of U.S. and local government policies to displace Indigenous people from their lands and separate them from their families and communities is a clear root cause, Parsons said.
“In Denver’s case, this land was actually stolen. It was never ceded by a treaty. Now there’s this urban camping ban, and the most disproportionately represented community is Native,” Parsons said. “Imposing policies on a population that’s very Native, saying you don’t have a right to camp on these lands, feels like a modern reproduction of the past.”
Their ancestors were told the same thing, he added.
Reaching out to the city, Parsons and others argued that the city hadn’t done enough to provide alternatives for Native people experiencing homelessness — especially in the form of long-term housing, which was vastly unaffordable and unavailable to most of the people living in the camp.
Derek Woodbury, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Housing Stability, said his colleagues helped place the family with children into a shelter, provided motel vouchers to 10 people, and connected four others with city-sanctioned campsites. One person was referred to permanent supportive housing, and another was successfully housed, he said.
On Aug. 31, against the protests of the people camped at the site and other supporters, the camp was swept.
People crave the community of the camp
It came back, though.
On a weirdly warm November day, Cabrera sat on a chair outside her tent inside the dormant community garden. Several of her relatives were in neighboring tents. A nephew and a friend were fixing a bike. Someone was washing clothes, and others were eating Indian tacos, fresh from a basement fundraiser at Four Winds.
A lot had happened since the sweep in August.
Barth had finally moved into an apartment that the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless had found for her, after she had resisted for more than a month. When I had visited her there a few days earlier, she said she hadn’t left the apartment in two weeks; she said she felt isolated and anxious.
“My street family has been more of a family than my biological or adoptive family. They don’t judge me. They look after me,” said Barth. “When you make that bond, it’s hard to break.”
At the same time, she was eager to stay off the streets.
Hawkins had been offered a spot in a safe outdoor camping space run by the nonprofit Colorado Village Collaborative on land owned by Regis University in northwest Denver. He too, felt conflicted about leaving his friends, but didn’t regret taking it.
Others had moved in. Tom Romero, who is Diné, said he wanted to help keep his friends there safe.
A few blocks away from Four Winds, volunteers were building a new Native-inclusive safe outdoor space on a piece of empty property owned by Denver Health.
A sanctioned Native-preference camping space had been one of the asks that Parsons and others had put to city officials in August, and the only one the city had been open to. (Their other ask, apart from not being swept, was for long-term housing for Native people living in Denver.)
The city’s Department of Housing Stability had reached out to Colorado Village Collaborative with the idea of opening a safe outdoor space that could accommodate the group, and it was scheduled to open later in November.
Hawkins, in particular, had been a proponent of the site. He was applying to work there.
Others weren’t so sure. Sky Roosevelt-Morris, a Four Winds board member who lives in a house on the property, had heard people calling the city-sanctioned safe outdoor space an “internment camp.”
Cabrera liked the freedom of living at Four Winds. She had taken on a role as an informal leader of the group. Together with Roosevelt-Morris, the group had set up rules for the camp.
They made collective decisions about who could stay there. There was only one entrance to the fenced-in garden where they lived, meaning they could monitor who came in and out. Relatives and friends stopped by regularly, and new members joined the camp from time to time.
But the new, city-authorized camp site was gearing up to be different than that. The city and Colorado Village Collaborative had pushed back on the original idea for a Native-preference site, for one thing, saying it would be discriminatory.
Roosevelt-Morris and Parsons argued that this was a misunderstanding of the history of Indigenous people in the country, and their specific rights to the land as sovereign nations. (The Fair Housing Act, which prevents racial discrimination in government-funded housing, allows federally recognized tribes to give preference to Native people for low-income housing.)
In the end, the site was to be “Native-inclusive” rather than “Native-preference.”
And then there were the rules. The safe outdoor space had fewer regulations than many shelters, but there were a few that grated on Cabrera and others.
No visitors, for example.
“You can’t have visitors. They can come over but they can’t come in,” Cabrera said. “There are a lot of people who come and see us all the time. Our friends come over and see us, see if we’re OK.”
But camping at Four Winds was becoming increasingly untenable. Now that the camp had moved off the sidewalk and was enclosed in the fenced garden, they weren’t afraid of being swept. But the city had sent inspectors who warned of zoning violations—including a particularly obscure one for storing indoor items (like clothes) outdoors.
“They’re making it a crime to shelter people,” Roosevelt-Morris said.
Laura Swartz, a spokesperson for the city’s Community Planning and Development office, said that the city had merely been responding to complaints.
“The city has not issued any fines related to the zoning complaints received, nor does it intend to,” Swartz said in an emailed statement. “We have worked collaboratively with the Four Winds American Indian Council over the past several months to ensure the property is clean and safe.”
Meanwhile, winter was coming. Cabrera wanted to get people inside during the cold weather.
Cabrera said she had to think about everyone’s well-being, not just her own.
Just a few weeks before the Native-inclusive site was scheduled to open, Cabrera was not at all sure they wanted to be included.
No visitors allowed at safe camping sites
Cole Chandler is executive director of Colorado Village Collaborative and led the nonprofit’s move into running safe outdoor spaces last year, as the arrival of the coronavirus was making indoor congregate shelters an especially risky proposition.
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, initially resistant to authorized camp sites, softened his stance and is now a proponent of them. The sanctioned camping site at Denver Health was slated to be one of three operating simultaneously across the city by early next year. (One site, currently in Park Hill, will be closing at year’s end, and another one is scheduled to open on public land in northeast Denver.)
Chandler says the pandemic provided an unexpected opening to create a service that has helped people achieve greater stability and safety than they otherwise would.
He says the rules of the campsites are meant to protect its residents. The no-visitor rule was initially put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and is unlikely to change.
“The anecdotal feedback has been that people living in the sites in unsheltered situations deal with a lot of stress. You never know who’s knocking at your door,” Chandler said. “I talked to a resident who said he hadn’t taken his shoes off in months because he didn’t know what he’d have to react to. I think we don’t want to separate people’s relationships with others that don’t go in, but we want to ensure that within those four walls, things are safe and all residents have predictability.”
The nonprofit had worked with Native-serving organizations, including Four Winds and the Native American Housing Circle, throughout the process of designing the new site at Denver Health. The new site would incorporate talking circles and other culturally relevant services into its plan.
The campsite is open, but the work is not done
After a couple of delays — and against the vocal opposition of some housed neighbors — the site at Denver Health opened on Nov. 30.
Hawkins arrived early at Four Winds to help people move into the new, sanctioned campsite. He was there out of personal interest but also for professional reasons. He had been hired to help manage the safe outdoor space, and had moved to a nearby hotel to be close to his new job.
Parsons, McCraigie and Roosevelt-Morris were there too, helping people pack up their things.
“There’s a lot of hesitance,” Roosevelt-Morris said ahead of a community meeting with the people living at the camp. “The larger issue is that we have an inhumane policy — the urban camping ban — in Denver. I’m not under the illusion that our work here is done.
“Is this better than going to the public right of way and getting swept over and over? Yes,” she said. “I don’t know what the solution is. This is one step.”
Emerging from her tent a few minutes later, Cabrera said she still had mixed feelings about the move. They’d been through a lot at this camp, and in a lot of ways, she felt unready to leave.
But the group collectively — and she personally — had made the decision to go.
“I started thinking about why we started this camp. Native Americans should have our own services,” she said. “There are things we need that other people can’t provide for us.”
Beyond the cultural accommodations, the opportunity to move as a group of friends or a non-nuclear family into low-income housing is exceedingly rare, in Denver and elsewhere. The rules against visitors are common to subsidized housing, but other places have an added hurdle of routinely splitting up relatives, often in individual apartments or hotel rooms.
Not that Cabrera would mind being alone in an apartment, she said. She’d actually like that. She just wanted to make sure everyone else was taken care of, too.
But permanent housing for everyone wasn’t on the table, and this chance might not come again. Even in the safe outdoor spaces, moving in as a group is only an option when a new camp opens up, said Chandler.
As the camp at Four Winds was packed up, neat rows of insulated blue ice-fishing tents were waiting for Cabrera and the others a few blocks away.
Just before Cabrera rolled up in her bike, Cuica Montoya, who leads the safe outdoor spaces effort for Colorado Village Collaborative, ejected this reporter from the site and locked the gate behind me.
A few days later, Cabrera texted with her first impressions.
“Not liking it,” she wrote. She was most upset that she didn’t have a way of helping people outside the camp; if they wanted a place to stay, they would have to go through an application process. “So when it’s snowing and someone comes here I have to turn my back.”
She’d keep fighting, Cabrera texted, for her rights and her people’s rights.
For now, though, she’d stay.