Denver to create campsites, consider tax hike to help people experiencing homelessness

Denver will soon host several designated campsites for people experiencing homelessness, marking a substantial shift in Mayor Michael Hancock’s approach and what advocates say is hopefully a catalyst for even more change.

“This is an emergency step that is necessary because of the ongoing pandemic,” Hancock said during a press conference. “The situation has deteriorated to the point where we must work and move to reduce risk now.”

At the same time, the city will work quickly to break up existing, unsanctioned camps, especially around Capitol Hill, almost certainly displacing more people than the new camps will be able to hold.

He also said he’ll back a proposed 0.25% sales tax increase to boost city services for people experiencing homelessness.

City Councilwoman Robin Kniech said she’ll introduce her proposal to permanently increase Denver’s sales tax in August. If approved by the council, the measure — which would charge customers an extra 2.5 cents for every $10 spent — would be set on the city’s November ballot.

Although sales tax revenue is currently down because of the pandemic, Kniech said during better years the increase could raise about $40 million a year for housing, 24-hour shelters and more.

The notion of a sales tax increase to create a dedicated cash stream for the homeless is old, but the pandemic gave it new life and urgency, Kniech said.

While the city-approved encampments and proposed tax increase are steps in the right direction, more work is needed to house the homeless and brace Denver for a likely surge in homelessness as evictions and other financial hardships befall residents, advocates say.

“Encampments will continue to exist throughout our entire city,” said Terese Howard of Denver Homeless Out Loud. “Until we have adequate housing options for all these people, we’re going to have to learn to live together in these public spaces.”

It’s not yet clear how many designated encampments, to be called “safe outdoor spaces,” will be built or where they’ll be located, Hancock said. But they’ll likely hold about 50 people each and be managed by the Colorado Village Collaborative.

About 4,000 people experiencing homelessness were counted in Denver last year during the annual point-in-time count, and Hancock noted Wednesday that during the coronavirus pandemic more people without housing have come to Denver from neighboring cities.

Staffing is already available for at least one encampment, which will have 24-hour access, community guidelines and bathrooms, said Cole Chandler, executive director of the Colorado Village Collaborative.

The encampment will also provide guests with access to mental health, addiction and other services, said Kathleen Van Voorhis of the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, another partner on the project.

One of the main goals of the encampments is to quell or slow the spread of COVID-19, said Bob McDonald, Denver’s public health director.

While reports vary on whether people are more likely to contract the respiratory virus in group shelters or encampments, McDonald noted that current encampments are suffering from Hepatitis A and Shigella outbreaks, which could also be mitigated by safe outdoor spaces.

The other goal is to help campers transition into more permanent housing, said Britta Fisher, Denver’s chief housing officer.

The encampments are a groundbreaking move many years in the works, said John Parvensky, president and CEO of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. But until adequate housing alternatives are in place, he said, the city should not break up existing encampments.

Even if the first encampments can only host a few dozen people, they’re an important first step, Parvensky said. If they prove to be effective, building more encampments should be easier for the city.

“This is an acknowledgement that safe outdoor space and outdoor camping is part of the solution until we can create enough permanent housing for folks so that nobody has to call the streets their home,” he said.

In the coming months Denver’s homeless population could increase by as much as 40%, Parvensky said, further underscoring the need for these and other steps.