DENVER — Mayor Michael Hancock on Wednesday said the city is working to establish temporary, managed campsites for people experiencing homelessness in Denver.
Hancock also announced his support for a sales tax increase for additional funding for homeless support services.
Hancock this week began directing city officials to guide people living in homeless encampments in the downtown area to motel rooms, shelters and temporary managed campsites known as "Safe Outdoor Spaces," according to a news release from the mayor's office.
“Due to COVID-19, the humanitarian crisis of homelessness is even more dire today than it was just a few short months ago,” Hancock said in the news release. “These are extraordinary times that call for extraordinary measures."
The managed campsites were proposed by the Colorado Village Collaborative, which operates the Beloved Community tiny home village in Denver. The Safe Outdoor Spaces would be for emergency use for people experiencing homelessness amid the COVID-19 crisis.
Colorado Village Collaborative will manage the sites, though the city hasn't yet determined where the sites will be located. Officials on Wednesday said they were working to get the sites operational as quickly as possible. Hancock said 2-3 sites are a possibility, and about 45-50 people would be able to stay at each site.
"COVID-19 has impacted every one of us," Hancock said. "But it poses particular concerns for people that are experiencing homelessness. It has deteroriated to a point where we must move to reduce the risk now."
Earlier this year the city created a temporary homeless shelter at the Denver Coliseum.
Hancock on Wednesday also announced his support for a possible November ballot measure that would raise about $40 million a year for homelessness support services. Denver city Councilwoman Robin Kniech is leading the planning for the measure, which could be referred to the ballot by the council this summer.
The measure would increase Denver's sales tax by 0.25%, or 2.5 cents on a $10 purchase. The increased sales tax would go toward housing options, rental assistance and increasing shelter capacity and quality, among other services.
Hancock's announcement comes amid the COVID-19 crisis, as city officials have worked to help the homeless community and control the spread of the virus there. But the mayor's support also follows last year's rejection by voters of the heavily-debated Initiative 300, known as the "Right to Survive" measure that would have overturned the city's ban on camping in public places.
“But as our community overwhelmingly agreed last year during the debate over Initiative 300, we can do better,” Hancock said. “Supporting these proposals is a step in the right direction.”Supporting these proposals is a step in the right direction.”
In December, Judge Johnny C. Barajas ruled that the city's camping ban was unconstitutional. Denver police stopped enforcing the ban while the city appealed the court's ruling, though it was unclear Wednesday whether there has been a resolution on the appeal.
In June, Hancock said he was looking at "all options," including a possible sanctioned campsite for people experiencing homelessness. The mayor received backlash for city sweeps of homeless camps in recent weeks, but Hancock said workers have found feces, needles and other "unsanitary" conditions at some of the camps.
“You cannot try to guard against one virus or a potential challenge while allowing others to exist. That’s the balance we have to try to walk,” Hancock said in June. “Some encampments have spiraled into acute public health threats.”
Hancock on Wednesday said they city will focus on clearing homeless encampments near Morey Middle School in the Capitol Neighborhood and others in the downtown area.
When it comes to selecting where the managed campsites will be located, Hancock acknowledged that "we anticipate that folks will not agree" on the program or the locations.
Kniech said they city would have a discussion with neighbors in the proposed locations for the managed campsites and the city would prioritize safety in making the selections, but neighborhoods won't be able to veto the decision.
"We don't give one person permission to keep another person out," Kniech said. "No city in America has land-use decisions by majority rule. It's critical to have input," but the locations won't be submitted to a vote.
While the proposed sales tax measure would be voted on in November, city officials said residents can donate to defer the costs of tents and sleeping bags at the managed campsites through a GoFundMe organized by the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado.