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Denver Cleans Up Tent Cities, Erects State-Sanctioned Encampments

Denver Camping

DENVER — While tent cities are becoming permanent fixtures in the urban jungles of Austin and Los Angeles, Denver has begun to clean up.

The picture below was taken from atop steps of the Colorado State Capitol Tuesday. Had the picture been taken one year ago, tents would have flooded the park across the street now surrounded in fencing as the bright spring grass gives color to the urban landscape. The empty pedestal also would have featured a monument to a Union Civil War soldier that was toppled by leftist demonstrations last summer.

The city cleared the mass encampment by last fall, but the homeless merely moved to adjacent neighborhoods as the city eased enforcement of its pandemic camping ban. Eventually, those campsites were cleared too, and others spotted around the city as of Tuesday appeared vacated.

State-Sanctioned Camping

As the novel coronavirus recedes into the horizon, the city government opted to pursue state-sanctioned tent cities in affluent neighborhoods, much to the frustration of their progressive residents. City Council passed more than $24 million over three resolutions in February for programs addressing homelessness. The Colorado Village Collaborative landed $900,000 from the pot to construct new tent cities to house 100 families, branded as “Safe Outdoor Spaces.”

In May, locals in Denver’s Park Hill neighborhood, where two in three voted for Joe Biden in November, sued to keep one such space from launching in their streets. The Denver District Court dismissed the lawsuit days later to pave the way for the tent city to open by June in the parking lot of Park Hill United Methodist Church.

The non-profit also used the funds to open another tent city on a parking lot at Regis University.

Representatives from the Colorado Village Collaborative denied The Federalist’s request for a tour or interview. Homeless camping proliferates far beyond downtown Denver.

Nearby Mayor Pursues Camping Ban

At the turn of the new year, Aurora Mayor and former Colorado Republican Rep. Mike Coffman spent seven nights on the streets between Denver and the state capital’s largest suburb, home to more than 350,000 residents, to get a better understanding of homelessness in the region.

At the time, Coffman said the exercise discouraged him from the pursuit of a camping ban, telling The Federalist he saw two different worlds between those in tent communities and those in non-profit shelters.

“What were really shocking I think were the encampments,” Coffman told The Federalist, and explained the larger ones had organized leadership whose inhabitants, often paranoid of outsiders, sought the freedom the tent cities provided to allow for substance abuse without structure like work requirements. “I never talked to anybody who felt depressed about being there.”

In the shelters, however, Coffman said he observed a mix of those engaged in a good-faith effort to get back on their feet and others stuck in a destructive cycle of dependency on illicit substances.

Six months later, Coffman has changed course on his support for a camping ban with the influx of federal funds passed in coronavirus spending legislation enough to build a permanent 24-hour shelter needed to implement such a ban.

“To have a camping ban you have to have a designated alternative for them to go to,” Coffman said, explaining current court precedent bars removing tent encampments absent a suitable facility to put the displaced homeless in. Aurora didn’t have the resources prior to federal dollars pouring in to construct a shelter. Coffman’s told The Federalist his vision includes the creation of a homeless shelter with case management adjacent to a fenced-in area that would allow those who wished to camp to do so.

“People in shelters never went to encampments, and people in encampments never went to shelters,” Coffman said.

Private Solutions Still Offer Help

The Denver Rescue Mission has been changing lives for 129 years and has grown to nine locations. It has served more than 7,500 people in need last year after pandemic lockdowns threw millions nationwide out of work and onto unemployment.

While the mission received a $2.1 million loan from the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) last year, the more than $37 million operation is entirely funded by private actors to support its wide range of services, including long-term transitional programs.

By the numbers, the mission was able to offer more than 689,000 meals, 386,000 nights of rest, 25,000 chapel services, and 186 tons of clothing, nearly all thanks to private donations from more than 67,000 donors, some of whom are successful graduates of the group’s programs.

While transitional programs have had at times had waiting lists, Nicole Tschetter, the public relations manager for the Denver Rescue Mission, said their beds have never been at full capacity.

“There have been sometimes like during the winter where we will be near capacity, but we work with the city of Denver as well as the other homeless service providers to make sure we have enough beds,” Tschetter told The Federalist.

The partnership with peer non-profits, Tschetter explained, has done wonders to assist individuals at their points of need. So if Denver Rescue Mission can’t provide the best services for one person based on his circumstances, the group will contact another area charity and vice versa.

“It’s really incredible to see the partnerships across the board in Denver as far as homeless service providers,” Tschetter said.

The Denver Rescue Mission’s impact is a testament to private non-profit organizations filling in the gaps where government falls short, even as the need for services rises amid economic turbulence brought by pandemic panic.