Civic Center Park draws praise, criticism as city works to manage homeless and other issues

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DENVER -- Anyone who's spent any time in downtown Denver knows Civic Center Park is both beautiful and at times a hotbed of undesirable activity.

The problems are hidden in plain sight. The homeless sleeping on benches, drug use in broad daylight and a public art exhibit being removed after a transient reportedly set it on fire.

"There's not ever a time when (the homeless) are not there,” said Gigi Burnham, who spoke to Denver7 for this story. "Why does (the drug use) have to be out everywhere?" said Helen Stamenkovic, another person at the park who was also at the park during filming. 

Many locals and even visitors avoid Civic Center Park altogether, opting instead for more family-friendly parks and open spaces.

“Wash Park is always so clean," said one park goer.

Burnham is frequently at Wash Park with her grandson, Cannon.

“There’s just so much to do here,” Burnham said. “You can walk, jog or ride.”

"Wash Park just seems to have more options for everyone,” said Mindy Van Kalsbeek who was at the park with her nieces and nephews.

"There's certainly a perception problem right now with Civic Center Park," said Scott Robson, executive director of the Civic Center Conservancy. "We are in a real crux right now in terms of allowing all to enjoy this public space."

Robson’s team has launched a number of programs like food trucks on Tuesdays to activate the park.

"During the mid-day we bring in food trucks along the promenade here," Robson said. “It’s very popular.”

Scott Gilmore is the head of all city parks for Denver Parks and Recreation.

"It's not illegal to be homeless," Gilmore said. “We have 260 parks and 6,000 acres in Denver.”

He says the buck stops with him with regard to the issues in Civic Center.

"This is a really, really challenging issue," Gilmore said.

He's sympathetic to the plight of the homeless.

"I'm actually an alcoholic,” Gilmore said. “I haven't (had a drink) in 14 years, but I'm one drink away from being homeless out here with these people."

He’s also realistic. He knows something must be done, which is why he launched a program that puts the homeless here to work.

“In a day works program, they go to work,” Gilmore said. "They clean-up the flowers, they plant the flowers, they mulch the trees."

Those workers are paid about $60 a day and they are encouraged to apply for full-time jobs with the city.

“We’ve hired 24 people so far,” Gilmore said.

The park does have rules. There's a strictly enforced curfew at night. And Gilmore said the city has taken steps to manage crowds in certain areas.

“We've actually closed some of the areas in the park on different days,” Gilmore said. “To be honest - what we're trying to do is manage the turf.”

But, Gregg Burtis is homeless and he says the solution needs to be more permanent.

"I think they need to look at other cities doing more progressive things with the homeless," Burtis said.

He points to Seattle as the model, describing the tent city for the homeless, run by the homeless.

"They have a program there called the Share/Wheel where homeless people actually run their own camps under the supervision of a nonprofit," Burtis said. “Let the homeless run their own situation up to a point. It gives them some kind of responsibility.”

On the upside, visitors like Lisa Howdyshell and Jennifer Etkin from Philadelphia say they were undeterred by the number of homeless people in the park. They decided to get out and walk the park anyway.

"We certainly noticed that there were a number of individuals here with shopping carts and backpacks," Howdyshell said. “But it’s a beautiful park. And the people are really friendly.”

“We even stopped and talked to some of the younger (homeless) people in the park and asked them if there were any services available to them,” Etkin said. “They were very nice in describing how things work here.”

But realistically, city leaders know until the clean-up of the park goes deeper, many will opt to stay away.

“We don't want to make it a safe place for that criminal element," Robson said.

“We need to create places for everybody,” Gilmore said. “There’s no law against loitering. It’s a public park.”

"People don't want to walk amongst that,” Howdyshell said. “Especially if they feel they're going to be approached for money or harassed.”

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