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Tents are seen on July 12, 2022, at a safe outdoor space, or SOS site, in Denver. The site on Federal Boulevard includes 48 insulated tents with bathrooms and hand sinks. Residents receive trash removal, meals, and access to laundry, showers, and Internet, with dental and mental health resources. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

When a fire ripped through a “Safe Outdoor Space” tent encampment in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, staff there responded quickly, moving residents out of harm’s way as emergency responders worked to put out the fire.

Some neighbors helped prevent flames from spreading. Others offered food and blankets to people who lost everything in the fire. But some who had complained about the safety of having people who are homeless living in a tent encampment managed by Colorado Village Collaborative in their neighborhood near Denver Health grumbled again about its security.

No one was injured in the Sept. 17 fire, though 37 people were displaced from the camp at West Eighth Avenue and Elati Street, one of seven Safe Outdoor Space sites opened by Colorado Village Collaborative in six Denver neighborhoods since December 2020.

Each time a Safe Outdoor Space opens, neighbors worry that people who are homeless and camping there will be disruptive and commit crimes in the area.

But a Colorado Sun analysis of Denver Police Department data found that crime reports decreased in the neighborhoods where Safe Outdoor Space sites have operated, even as reported crime increased across Denver.

The total number of crimes increased 8.2% across Denver in 2020, the first year of the pandemic. The number of reports rose even more, at 16.4%, in neighborhoods that would soon host a Safe Outdoor Space tent encampment. 

Denver’s overall crime went up again by 14.3% in 2021, the first full year Safe Outdoor Space sites were open. But in the six Denver neighborhoods hosting the camps saw a decline of 2.8% in the number of reported crimes.  

The Colorado Village Collaborative started the Safe Outdoor Space program, or SOS, in 2020 in response to an increased demand for shelter during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. The program provides clusters of durable tents where people who are homeless can live at the temporary sites for as long as they like, with access to food, showers, peer support and other services. Staff and security are available around the clock. When leases expire, site leaders move the encampment, and current residents to a new location.

Experts say when people who are homeless find access to stable housing and other basic necessities, the likelihood of them being charged with a crime goes down. But the new SOS model has still scared or upset some Denver neighbors. Experts say people often fear that crime is occurring at a much higher rate than the actual data is showing.

Colorado Village Collaborative leaders said no resident has been charged with a crime while they lived at an SOS site. Site managers made zero calls to Denver police for service inside their tent communities within the first six months of operating, the collaborative said. 

“These are not unsanctioned encampments where there’s no staff, no resources and no case management,” said Cuica Montoya, Colorado Village Collaborative’s program director overseeing the SOS sites. “And what you find when serving this population, is the more you meet the needs, the less things are going to happen that you don’t want to happen.”

A Colorado Sun data analysis

Denver police track crimes by address and neighborhood. The Sun analyzed police data provided for an entire neighborhood that housed a Safe Outdoor Space.

While public disorder and theft of personal property reports increased citywide in 2021, they dropped in half of the six neighborhoods that year, the first full year that Safe Outdoor Space sites had operated. And in the neighborhoods that saw an increase from the prior year, the increased rates were lower than the city’s rate.

Neighborhood data can be much smaller than the city’s, so even single-digit increases in a type of crime can spike the entire neighborhood’s crime rate. 

For example, in South Park Hill, where an SOS site operated June 21 to Dec. 13, 2021, 16 drug or alcohol crimes were reported, up from seven the year before, a 128.6% increase. In 2018, South Park Hill had 21 reports related to drugs and alcohol, according to the crime data. In 2022, that number of reports dropped to 8. 

For violent crimes, both the city and the six neighborhoods saw an increase in 2021. In Denver, the number of violent crimes increased by 12.6% in 2020 and then rose by 7.8% the following year when Safe Outdoor Space sites began opening. Violent crime increased in 2021 in SOS neighborhoods, too, but by 4.7%. 

Violent crimes include offenses that involve force or threat of force, such as murder and manslaughter, rape, robbery and aggravated assault, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The most recent FBI crime data shows violent crime rates increased 4.8% nationally from 2018 to 2020. 

Crime rates, particularly violent crimes, rose nationwide during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Crime experts have said crime spikes often stem from unmet needs. Poverty, housing shortages, job challenges and low access to other basic necessities could be driving the trend as people are pushed out of expensive housing markets amid rising inflation.  

Pandemic lockdowns disrupted all aspects of life, including the human service work to stem crime and violence across the country. Americans purchased a record number of guns in recent years and high-profile police killings in 2020 have strained community-police relations.

Widespread closures of courts could have affected public safety trends nationally as defendants and suspects may have thought they would not face swift consequences while courts were closed, criminologists told a ProPublica reporter in July. What matters most when deterring criminal acts is not the severity of the possible punishment, but the likelihood that a suspect will be caught and face swift and immediate consequences for breaking the law, according to a theory by the late criminologist Mark Kleiman. 

Neighbors predicted a rise in drug crimes

The idea of a Safe Outdoor Space sounded radical to some ears when the model launched, in part, to help stem the spread of the coronavirus among vulnerable people.

But when the Colorado Village Collaborative proposed opening the first Safe Outdoor Space in Denver Coliseum’s parking lot in June 2020, things didn’t go as planned. Globeville and Elyria-Swansea neighbors were already upset about a project that expanded Interstate 70 through their neighborhood, and said there were already several other initiatives operating there to help people who were homeless. Colorado Village Collaborative leaders pulled the plan. A proposal to open the first site next to the Blair Caldwell Library in Five Points also failed after neighbors strongly opposed it. 

The first site opened in December 2020, on private property behind Denver Community Church at the intersection of East 16th Avenue and Pearl Street in Capitol Hill, housing about 40 people for six months. 

In news reports, some Denver residents predicted a rise in drug and property crimes and crimes affecting children after an SOS site landed in their neighborhood. Denver police recently said they had no data showing an increase in crimes in the areas surrounding the Safe Outdoor Spaces.

However, according to the Denver police crime database, the number of drug and alcohol citations dropped in five of six neighborhoods while SOS sites operated there.

Residents are referred to the SOS program by the Denver Street Outreach Collaborative, which comprises the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, St. Francis Center and Urban Peak. Outreach workers from those organizations go into ad-hoc encampments and develop relationships with people who both want to live at SOS sites and are willing to follow the rules. SOS sites do not allow open drug or alcohol use and leaders do not tolerate violence or theft, Montoya said.

There have been calls for help with onsite health emergencies, such as asthma attacks and seizures, and calls to Support Team Assisted Response or STAR, for crises related to mental health, Montoya said. 

SOS leaders prioritize people who come from groups overrepresented in homelessness such as people of color and people who are a part of the LGBTQ community. Residents are allowed to come and go as they please, but walk-in clients are not allowed in the encampments.

There are currently two Safe Outdoor Space camps operating — in the Barnum and Clayton neighborhoods — with a third opening in Montbello later this year. The locations, typically operating for no longer than a year, are often on private property or on unused public land leased to the Colorado Village Collaborative. The Barnum site is located on land owned by St. Francis Center. 

The Lincoln Park site, which was on land near the Four Winds American Indian Council community center, was designed to shelter Native American people. It will move to the Arie P. Taylor Municipal Center near 47th Avenue and Peoria Street in Montbello in December. 

Couples are allowed to live together at SOS sites, and people can bring their pets. Each site has room for about 50 residents. 

Colorado Village Collaborative has capacity to serve up to 160 people per night, a small percentage of the 2,078 people sleeping on the streets or in places not meant for human habitation in metro Denver, according to an annual count conducted on one night in January. The so-called point in time survey estimated 6,884 people were homeless that night, 4,806 of whom were staying in emergency shelters, transitional housing or safe haven programs.

“If every single person that was sleeping outside was living in a Safe Outdoor Space, and getting the support that they need, we wouldn’t have the impact of homelessness that we do currently in Denver,” Montoya said.

About 60% of staff members working at SOS sites have been homeless in the past, and they apply their experience to better assist residents who are homeless and often distrustful of others, Montoya said.

Small but fierce opposition

Colorado Village Collaborative leaders have faced fierce opposition to some proposed sites, including two lawsuits filed by Park Hill residents, and two board of adjustment cases filed by Park Hill and Lincoln Park residents challenging the operating permit given to the Colorado Village Collaborative, Montoya said.

A lawsuit filed by residents attempting to keep the Safe Outdoor Space from opening at Park Hill United Methodist Church in June 2021 was dismissed in Denver District Court. The city, the Village Collaborative, the church and its pastor, Nathan Adams, were named in the case.

The Park Hill site operated for six months and housed 40 people.

Colorado Village Collaborative leaders said the lawsuit, while supported by some neighbors, spurred others to help. Some brought food or helped set up tents. Others became regular volunteers.

A woman who lives across the street from the church said residents had concerns about children’s safety in the neighborhood — so much so, they asked Colorado Village Collaborative to background check SOS residents for sexual offenses since the site was located near a preschool. 

Colorado Village Collaborative background checked every resident who was expected to move into the Park Hill site. People with sexual offenses or recent violent offenses on their records were not allowed to live there, Montoya said. Those people were moved to the Regis SOS site, which was not located near a preschool, and is closed now, and reopened over the summer in the Barnum neighborhood, she said.

The way the Park Hill SOS site was rolled out created further distrust among the already-skeptical residents, the woman said. SOS leaders were defensive, expecting push back no matter where the site was located, she said. 

The woman said she was at first concerned about the safety of kids in the neighborhood. But her concerns never manifested, she said in an interview in July, in front of her house.

“It didn’t feel dangerous at the end of the day. There was no cat calling. It felt private,” she said. “I felt, mostly by the grace of God, that I’m not homeless. It was spiritual. I just felt my privilege, and I was like, ‘Why was I so upset about this at first?”’

She had hoped to see a capstone paper written by Park Hill UMC leaders or the Colorado Village Collaborative after the site closed, outlining the successes and shortfalls of the project, with information about what leaders learned while the site had operated. “That’s social change,” she said. “It would be like educating people.”   

One man’s story

There were about 40 people, most still sleeping, when Colorado Sun reporters visited the newest SOS site, which opened July 7 at 221 Federal Boulevard in the Barnum neighborhood. It replaced the SOS site at Regis University, about 2 miles to the north. 

St. Francis Center recently purchased the Barnum property and has plans to develop 60 units of affordable housing units for seniors there next year.

For now, there are insulated ice fishing tents lined up across the property, with a larger tent outfitted with a microwave, coffee and hot water machines.

The camp is equipped with electric heaters, hand washing sinks, laundry machines, shower trucks and 10 new pallet shelters designed for people with physical disabilities.

Ismail Abdullah, who was at the Barnum site that morning, was eager to share his story. He said he has experienced homelessness so many times he couldn’t count the number. 

The last time he had a permanent home was in late 2019 or early 2020. Since then, the Denver native has lived on the streets, sometimes sleeping at the Auraria Campus, at City Park or somewhere on, or near Welton Street.

“One of the worst things I experienced was on the east side (of Denver) down by Welton,” he said. “I heard gunshots every single night for months and months and months and months and months. And that really traumatized me.”

Abdullah said he flinched all the way through the hours-long July 4th fireworks celebrations occurring in the neighborhoods surrounding the Barnum site. He said they felt like explosions. 

Abdullah Ismail poses for a portrait on July 12, 2022, at a safe outdoor space, or SOS, where he has lived since April 2022. Ismail started living on the streets of Denver after losing his job at the start of the pandemic. One of three SOS sites in the city, the site includes 48 tents and six ADA-compliant pallet structures, along with bathrooms, hand sinks, trash removal, meals, drinking water, laundry, showers, and Internet. Tenants also receive dental and mental health resources. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

When he was still living on the streets, Abdullah was approached by an outreach worker, who described the SOS site model. Two days later, Abdullah arrived at the Regis site, guarded and distrustful. For weeks, he said he did not talk to anyone there.

“I was expecting for it to not be this nice,” he said. “I expected just a tent or a cot and lunch every day. It’s been great. Just being able to shower, have some food, a place to rest and sleep — that was a big relief.”

Abdullah moved into a Denver apartment soon after his interview with The Sun. Now, with stable housing, he has plans to find employment, perhaps at an SOS site, or as an outreach professional or peer counselor with the Colorado Village Collaborative or Urban Peak.

“I used to be so exhausted,” he said. “I’m looking forward to just having my peace again.”

Colorado Village Collaborative does not have data measuring employment outcomes for program participants. But leaders said the Safe Outdoor Space program has so far this year helped 75 people find longer-term housing.

The nonprofit is hoping to have found longer-term housing for about 100 SOS residents by the end of the year, Montoya said. Within the first six months of launching the Safe Outdoor Space model, nonprofit leaders housed a couple who had been homeless for about 15 years each, Stitt said. Since January, Colorado Village Collaborative has served 302 people.

“A lot of these folks are folks that were living outside and were not connected to any resources,” said Montoya, who was homeless in Denver from 2011 to 2014. “So to see somebody go from survival mode, and not having access, to ready to go into an apartment is amazing.”

“We would normally say it takes about two years from the time you meet someone, to build a relationship, to gathering their documents, to the point at which you’re moving them into housing,” she said. “I think we’re seeing a reduction in that time with the Safe Outdoor Space because no longer are residents disappearing randomly and then reappearing at another location. Outreach workers can come and find them.”

Finding a community partner in Clayton

In April 2020, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock said he did not support the Safe Outdoor Space model. By July, he had touted the model in his State of the City address. Now, the SOS model is a part of the city’s sheltering and homelessness services plan.

“If it wasn’t working, he wouldn’t be anxious to associate himself with it,” said Fred Glick, a commercial real estate developer and member of the Clayton Neighborhood Association board.

When the Clayton SOS site launched at the Denver Human Services East office near 38th Avenue and Steele Street, in late 2021, Colorado Village Collaborative approached the Clayton Neighborhood Association about executing a good neighbor agreement, where the two parties would agree to work together to address homelessness. 

The biggest responsibility in the agreement required the neighborhood association to host a monthly meeting with Colorado Village Collaborative to discuss any concerns or questions from people in the neighborhood, Glick said.

“And after about the first three or four meetings, we actually agreed to stop having them because it was just me and Cuica,” he said. 

Fred Glick, a leader at the Clayton Neighborhood Association, poses for a portrait on July 20, 2022, at his home in Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Glick said there has been widespread support for the camp in the Clayton neighborhood. The only significant pushback came from property owners who didn’t live in the neighborhood but had plans to develop lots on the corner of 37th and Steele, Glick said. 

In Park Hill and Lincoln Park, neighbors appealed to the city board of adjustment many times to overturn permits issued to Colorado Village Collaborative under a rule that allows “temporary managed campsites” in Denver. None of them were successful.

“Time and time again, the board of adjustment has found that, actually, this is an acceptable temporary use,” said Glick, a supporter of the SOS sites since they launched.

“I don’t think they are a permanent answer,” he said of the camps, “but it certainly is an important tool right now. We’re not solving homelesness with any single answer, but certainly, this is an important piece.”

“People are very concerned when they see people living on the streets, and when we get areas downtown that are really problematic, or we have bike theft issues, or we see (unsanctioned) encampments,” he said. “I think people are upset about that. I don’t think people are necessarily upset about the SOS sites, unless they’re folks with real privilege, and it’s a real NIMBY reaction.” 

Justin Cook poses for a portrait on July 20, 2022, at his home in Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Justin Cook, who lives in a house closest to the Clayton SOS site, said he has seen camp residents walking by his home a few times, usually cleaning up trash around the neighborhood. Cook has donated water to the site and plans to soon team up with a neighbor to deliver packages of socks, underwear and water.

“People need help,” he said. “If we can do something to help, why not?”

The science of homelessess 

There is often a gap between perception and reality in criminology, said Prabha Unnithan, a professor of sociology at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. 

People often fear that crime is occurring at a much higher rate than the actual data is showing, he said.

That trend is often even more pronounced when it involves undervalued and stigmatized people, such as those who are homeless, he said.

Theft and simple or aggravated assault are crimes people often associate with homelessness. But in reality, people who are homeless are often charged with petty crimes such as vagrancy, loitering, trespassing and public urination. They’re not often charged with higher level misdemeanors and rarely are accused or convicted of felony crimes, he said.

There is a correlation, though, between incarceration and homelessness. People with convictions are more likely to become homeless. But when people who are homeless find access to housing, and other basic necessities, they are less likely to be charged with a crime, he said. “The likelihood that they are surviving, without reoffending, does go up, the research indicates.”

Some criminologists may not agree, but Unnithan said access to stable housing is even more important than even finding employment. 

“Secure housing comes first and then other things follow,” he said. As Safe Outdoor Space leaders work to expand the model, Unnithan said he hopes neighbors will understand what is at stake when they work against the human service employees working to alleviate homelessness.

“This starts with the goodwill of neighbors, including nearby business owners who must understand that without the SOS sites, there may be even more safety problems if homeless people’s needs aren’t being met,” Unnithan said.

A mural made by local elementary schoolers is seen at a safe outdoor space, or SOS, on July 14, 2022, in Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Colorado Village Collaborative celebrated five years on July 21. The organization’s former executive director, Cole Chandler, has moved on to work in a newly created position as director of homelessness initiatives at the Colorado Department of Human Services.

Colorado Village Collaborative is hoping to keep its programs running as the city continues to fight homelessness.

Each time project leaders move an SOS site, it costs $200,000. The organization is moving at least four sites this year because of expired leases, Montoya said.

The biggest obstacles to expanding the SOS model more swiftly are the limited number of landowners willing to host camps, a lack of capital, and too few opportunities for longer-term leases, Stitt and Montoya said. 

Colorado Village Collaborative launched a yearlong fundraising campaign June 9 to help with operating costs and their goal of finding a permanent location. By Oct. 23, the fundraiser had raised almost $74,000 from almost 240 supporters.

“As we prove our position and what we’re doing, I think the efficacy of the Safe Outdoor Space model is supporting what we’re saying,” Stitt said.

“It’s a place where they can find their dignity, and I think that’s the most important part that I like to illustrate,” he said. “Being homeless isn’t very dignified. And the way that we treat a lot of folks experiencing unsheltered homelessness is very inhumane, and so they begin to act in that way, because that’s how they’re treated. We work to deconstruct that and build our folks up and give them the strength, the ability, and the tools and the resources, so that they can imagine a different future for themselves.”

The University of Denver’s Center for Housing and Homelessness Research conducted an evaluation of Colorado Village Collaborative’s Beloved Community Village, Denver’s first tiny home community, from July 2017 until April 2018. 

The study found no increase in crime around the site and few concerns from neighbors. Ten of 12 residents, who were chronically homeless before they moved into a tiny home there, were still housed after nine months, according to the study. Of the 10 still housed nine months later, three had moved into permanent housing. By the end of the nine-month evaluation, all of the people living there were employed or in school and one person received disability benefits.

Still, Montoya said, the most intangible success of the program is that it gives people who are struggling some hope.

“To be able to provide that light, and that hope to people that are in that darkness, and to see the light come back on in their eyes,” she said, “you just can’t quantify that.”

Tatiana Flowers

Tatiana Flowers is the equity and general assignment beat reporter for the Colorado Sun. She has covered crime and courts plus education and health in Colorado, Connecticut, Israel...

Tamara Chuang

Tamara writes about businesses, technology and the local economy for The Colorado Sun. She also writes the "What's Working" column, available as a free newsletter at coloradosun.com/getww....

Brammhi Balarajan

Email: Brammhi@coloradosun.com Twitter: @brammhi