Today, the Mayor gave the go ahead to legalize Safe OutDoor Spaces (i.e. designated tent camp sites) in Denver! This was not something he wanted to do…but he finally announced approval to go ahead. This comes after 20 plus years of effort in Denver to make such spaces legal and real. The first Tent City effort in Denver was in 2000.
The need for a legal pathway for land to be used for people to survive in tents could not be more clear. As mass homelessness grows under COVID and people can’t afford rent, people have to live somewhere. SOS sites can provide critical space with the privacy of your own tent, necessary hygiene resources, and some basic stability of location. SOS sites should start to spread immediately across every city council district to even begin to meet the vast need!
We must be real. One, two, or even 10 of these sites will not be enough to meet the need and will not be an appropriate option for all. The Point in Time count was roughly 5,000 people homeless in Denver – this is of course a massive undercount and is also pre-pandemic. We are probably looking at at least 15,000 now. And 100K evictions right around the corner. To have enough SOS spaces for all these people is not likely to happen. Even to have enough sites for all those currently staying outside at least 10 or 20 one hundred person sites would probably be needed. Furthermore, large sites with lots of people, at certain locations, run by shelter providers with strict rules, or other constraints may not be what works for many people. Being real, we must recognize that supporting the creation of SOS sites also means supporting people living in non-designated encampments with the resources and stability they need.
In the Mayor’s press release it states, “Starting this week, Mayor Hancock has directed city agencies to focus their efforts on guiding people living in neighborhood encampments scattered throughout downtown to motel rooms? Safe Outdoor Spaces and shelters.” To this we ask… How many more motel rooms have been added this week? We have been just under 700 COVID related for several months now. Are they adding over 2000? That’s the scale that would be needed to actually have this as an option to which the City can guide people. How many SOS sites are open this week? None, yet. And as noted above, even with over 10 large sites, this would not be enough or work for all. Are you really still trying to say you intend and will guide people to shelters?? Shelter spaces are about to decrease with the National Western shelter closing. Also, enclosed shelters breed COVID and have had recent incidents of murder.
The City will not get away with using the existence of some vitally needed SOS sites to further criminalize people living at other non-designated encampments. They will try to shame our economic refugees in every manner possible. People cannot be forced to go to certain sites like prisoners. We have basic rights that cannot be violated – Denver cannot criminalize people living on our streets for simply being homeless. People want housing. But no one can be forced to go places or criminalized for existing.
The City’s commitment in their press release to provide increased trash services, needle exchange, and outreach to existing encampments is a much needed and hopeful statement. We have already seen the City place trash cans at two encampments in the past few days, and await their placement at other camps around town. These services cannot be provided if encampments are being swept from block to block.
In closing we must make it clear that the creation of SOS sites, while vital in our immediate need, are not the final answer. Everyone deserves housing. Housing should not be a privilege for the rich and white. As we create immediate options for people to survive in tents now, the City must be creating attainable housing for all, starting NOW.