Denver’s first sanctioned homeless encampments offer a glimmer of hope, stability

Police confiscated all of J.T. Taylor’s belongings that had been covered in blood as evidence. And there had been a lot of blood.

Taylor said he watched this summer as two guests at the National Western homeless shelter fought over a prepackaged snack. The fight ended when the older, and much larger, guest stabbed a younger man four times in the neck.

“The young man died at the head of my bed. Blood just went all over the area,” Taylor said. “I had nightmares for a week and a half. It got so bad I couldn’t sleep.”

Shaking his head, Taylor said he left the shelter in short order, deciding he was better off — safer, surely — on his own. He recalled more of the 18 months on Denver’s streets from the confines of one of the city’s first safe outdoor spaces, which are legally operated, fully staffed and regulated homeless encampments.

Wearing wrinkle-free khakis, black winter gloves and a black coat with his hood up, Taylor hid his smile behind a neck gaiter, though his eyes and unfurrowed brows offer a glimpse into the man’s optimism. No longer does he feel the need to look over his shoulder in fear that his tent might be invaded in the night. No longer does he keep watch for Denver police officers looking to sweep him from the small plot he calls his own.

Now Taylor said he sleeps more peacefully than he has in a long time. He looks to the hopefully near future and talks of an affordable apartment, steady work and sharing a pizza with friends while perhaps watching a football game.

“I’m not a greedy person, I just want a normal life,” Taylor said.

The safe open space offers a modicum of stability for those seeking work, or those navigating government red tape to get new birth certificates, social security cards and identity cards needed for work.

Mental health and addiction services are offered as available, said Cuica Montoya, who manages the site at the Denver Community Church’s uptown location on Pearl Street as the Colorado Village Collaborative’s outreach and wellness program manager. Organizers hope soon housing and job hunting services will also be available. Guests also have access to showers and laundry services.

In two larger tents flanking the northeast and northwest corners of the site, guests can congregate. There’s fresh coffee and tea all day long, hot meals throughout the day and temperature checks at the site’s gates and COVID-19 testing.

Each of the site’s 30 dome-shaped tents — for a maximum of 40 people total — are spaced equally from the others, equipped with heating elements and cots. Unlike many of the illegal camps around town, there is no trash surrounding the tents, though some have welcome mats. Fighting isn’t allowed, nor is alcohol or drug use. Each person has 24-hour access to the site, though must abide by the quiet hours between 10 p.m. to 8 a.m.

A similar site for up to 30 women and people who identify as transgender experiencing homelessness also opened last month on the nearby property of First Baptist Church in Capitol Hill.  A search is also underway for a possible third site location, Montoya said.

While the lease for the Pearl Street site only lasts for six months, Montoya said it’s already clear the effort is helping. Once the lease expires, she said it’s likely they’ll seek to relocate the site rather than close it down.

Montoya said the staff and volunteers at the site are as diverse as the homeless population itself, and all, like her, have been homeless themselves. That gives those in the position of authority more credibility and enables them to empathize with the challenges others face, she said.

Jason Benjamin, who has lived on Denver’s streets for about 16 months, said the Pearl Street site represents a chance to heal. Like Taylor, he recalls officers kicking him out of illegal encampments around town.

“It drains you when they take everything you own and throw it away like garbage. You have to start all over,” Benjamin said.

Flanked by his trusty dog, Muttley, Benjamin said he hopes soon to buy a recreational vehicle, which would take him out of a tent and allow him more mobility.

Benjamin said the safe outdoor space has given him a spot where he can keep his few belongings and leave his well-behaved dog for the day while he goes out to find work. It’s a small, but incredibly important, stepping stone and he encourages others on the streets to try and get in.

“I tell everybody to try to get on the list if you’re serious about getting off the streets and changing your life,” Benjamin said. “If they opened a dozen of these and did it the exact same way, the population on the street would go down quite a bit.”

That list is long, and openings are few.

Montoya said the Pearl Street site filled to capacity immediately and a third site, should one open, could be filled in a day.

But the sites require buy-in not only from city officials but also those who live on the streets, said Sophie Elias, who moved into the space last month with her husband.

Yes, there are rules, Elias said, but rather than rejecting that structure, she has embraced it.

“It’s not a prison camp,” she said. “I can come and go as I please.”

And so can her husband and small dog, Copper, Elias said. Which is a welcome change because many shelters don’t allow couples to stay together and do not allow pets.

Elias shifts quickly between laughter and tears as Copper sleeps on her lap and she recalls decades of living on the streets. After just a short time of living at the Pearl Street safe outdoor space, the future looks brighter for her small family, she said.

Benjamin said he’s similarly optimistic and ventured a theory: Each of the world’s problems can be traced back to people who say “I don’t care” or “Not my problem.”

These safe outdoor spaces represent a small respite from that resignation, he said.

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