Rosemarie Palafox-Alfaro woke up late on the night of Sept. 17 to the sound of someone screaming “fire.”
The Daily Sun-Up podcast | More episodes
“It was very scary and I didn’t know what was going on at first,” she said.
After she and other residents at a city-sanctioned tent encampment near Denver Health were evacuated, Palafox-Alfaro learned the blaze had been stopped just before it torched her tent, where she had stored a new laptop, sheets, blankets and other household items as she prepared to move into a new apartment.
Thirty-seven residents were displaced by the fire and 16 people lost everything they owned when the blaze tore through the Native American-inclusive safe outdoor space run by the Colorado Village Collaborative at the corner of West Eighth Avenue and Elati Street.
On-site collaborative staff helped everyone evacuate quickly and no one was injured. Emergency responders contained the fire within minutes.
The collaborative knew it had to leave the Denver Health campus in December, because its lease was up. But now, after 16 of 41 available tents were destroyed, there is extra pressure to recreate the temporary housing before the holidays and as cold weather settles in.
Preventing another fire
Almost 100 volunteers have stepped up to help create a new sanctioned tent community, at Arie P. Taylor Municipal Center at East 47th Avenue and Peoria Street in the Montbello neighborhood. Some are regular helpers, showing up each time the collaborative creates a new community; others are from the Denver Health community or other local human services organization. A handful of residents who lived at the site are also working to rebuild their new home, said Cuica Montoya, Colorado Village Collaborative’s program director overseeing the safe outdoor spaces.
The work in Montbello is being guided by the Denver Fire Department to ensure its site plans, operating policies and procedures will continue to mitigate the chances of another fire, said Grey Waletich, a Colorado Village Collaborative senior director responsible for building the safe outdoor spaces.
This includes increasing the amount of space between tents to 5 feet from 2½ feet to keep fire from spreading quickly and allowing it to be extinguished faster, Waletich said.
A safety committee will help ensure those precautions are implemented and the group will compile a document with those plans that can be shared systemwide, she said. Two safe outdoor spaces are currently operating.
The Colorado Village Collaborative will buy a dedicated outdoor hose specifically for emergency use at each site, ensure extinguishers are in service, and make sure there’s adequate lighting at the new site with ramps that are accessible to people with disabilities, Waletich said.
The cause of the fire is still undetermined.
“The fire was devastating to our community members, to our staff, to our neighborhood and to Denver Health,” Montoya said.
Prioritizing Native people
The Native American-inclusive safe outdoor space prioritizes Native people who are living in unsheltered homelessness. Native Americans make up 1% of the population in Denver, yet they represent 6% of the population experiencing homelessness in the city.
“For our community members, it was doubly devastating, because some lost everything they had owned, and this community has already experienced so much displacement in their generational history and in their current history and it was extremely devastating. But we did our best to support them,” Montoya said.
People displaced by the fire were placed in emergency housing, including through a partnership with Denver Street Outreach Collaborative’s Bridge Housing hotels, managed by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. The Gathering Place — the only daytime drop-in center in metro Denver that serves women, transgender people, and their children — also has an emergency shelter program, which has housed some displaced residents from the Native American-inclusive site, Montoya said.
Four Winds Indian Council also collected donations to help replace items lost in the fire and the Colorado Village Collaborative initiated a campaign to buy gift cards for the 16 people who lost everything when their temporary tent homes burned.
The Native American Housing Circle, which formed in 2019 to help address the overrepresentation of Native American people in local homelessness, also advocated for the creation of the Native American-inclusive safe outdoor space with the City of Denver. They have also advised Colorado Village Collaborative since the inception of the Native American-inclusive site program.
An art mural will be painted by an Indigenous artist, when the Montbello site opens. The site also will support traditional Native American ceremonies. A former resident who is now housed leads beading workshops, a tradition that represents Indigenous resilience, and is considered a sacred tribal form of art.
“We have a drum circle during the sunrise sometimes,” Montoya said. “It really just depends on who is there and what cultural practices and traditions and ceremonies they would like to have onsite. What we’re doing is prioritizing their presence in our program in a dedicated space where they feel their cultures and traditions and practices can be honored.”
But only a few of the people who were displaced by the fire want to move into the new site, Montoya said.
“I don’t see many of them wanting to move and uproot again,” Montoya said. “Folks have that feeling of stability. There are a couple that want to help create the new site and bring in the spirit of the old site into the space. So we’ll be having a handful — less than five of our original folks moving into the new site — but then we will be doing intakes for folks in the neighborhood and other Native Americans that have been identified and offering the new space for them.”
Safe outdoor spaces are often temporary and usually operate for a year or two on private property or unused public land leased to the Colorado Village Collaborative. The communities are staffed around the clock by people who help direct residents to services that can aid their transition to employment and permanent housing. The spaces include toilet and shower facilities, a place to do laundry, and regular meals.
Each time a safe outdoor space moves, it costs $300,000, Montoya said. The Colorado Village Collaborative is always looking for land owners willing to lease land to the organization to host a temporary, long-term or permanent safe outdoor space for alternative shelter.
The Colorado Village Collaborative is hoping to open a fourth safe outdoor space in the third quarter of 2023.
“With the cost of everything increasing and staffing shortages, we want to be really meaningful about when we expand,” Montoya said. “But we are hoping to evaluate other options to expand existing spaces as well.”
“It was a lot more peaceful than the other camps”
Palafox-Alfaro was living in unstable housing before she moved out and transitioned into a shelter. She had driven by a safe outdoor space at East 38th Avenue and Steele Street in the Clayton neighborhood many times, and eventually asked a case worker at the St. Francis Center, which recently purchased the Barnum safe outdoor space at 221 Federal Boulevard, if there was space for her there.
The case worker said all safe outdoor spaces were full with long waiting lists, but that the Native American-inclusive site could prioritize Palafox-Alfaro, who is a part of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, which has its reservation in South Dakota.
The Colorado Village Collaborative prioritizes Native American people who are referred from Native-serving organizations and other referral partners.
“We have a plan to initiate a welcoming committee so people can learn about Native people and respect the space,” Montoya said. “It will be made up of people who live in the space to give an orientation to people who aren’t Native to explain why it’s important for this in the community.”
Palafox-Alfaro lived at the Native American-inclusive site until the fire.
“It was nice and quiet,” she said. “It was a lot more peaceful than the other camps. It helps to have people who are from your culture. It helped me a lot because they put me in connection with school, with college.”
Palafox-Alfaro is now a student at Metropolitan State University where she’s studying to become a construction project manager. Safe outdoor space leaders helped her find an apartment in Glendale, which she pays for using an emergency housing voucher that prioritizes Native Americans, she said.
“It’s awesome. I love it,” she said in her new apartment Tuesday night. “I love having peace and quiet and more space.”
MORE: The Colorado Village Collaborative is asking volunteers to help build the Native American-inclusive site at 4685 Peoria St. using an online form and to donate to the organization for operating costs.