Denver eyes National Western Complex lot for first homeless encampment

The National Western Complex parking lot sits as the top contender to be the location of Denver’s first sanctioned homeless encampment, and while nothing is finalized, organizers and neighbors already disagree over the site.

“This is too much, goddamn it,” said Drew Dutcher, president of the Elyria and Swansea Neighborhood Association. “We’re right in the thick of it. We have homeless people roaming around in our alleys, off their meds. We’re picking up a lot of extra trash. Women don’t feel safe. People are worried about their children.”

But the encampment must go somewhere and the complex’s parking lot checks all of the boxes, said Cole Chandler, executive director of the organizing Colorado Village Collaborative. The funding’s ready, staffing is on the way and the site could open early next month, pending City Council approval, he said.

Mayor Michael Hancock announced last month that the city would open at least one — possibly several — temporary encampments. Those sites would give people experiencing homelessness a safe, clean place to take shelter and avoid contracting COVID-19, he said.

They’ll also allow city officials to break up unsanctioned homeless encampments around town, which have grown in size and frequency since the pandemic began, Hancock said.

Hancock’s announcement — an about-face for the mayor — came in response to a letter from eight City Council members asking for the encampments. He later responded and asked those members to find possible sites within their own districts.

The first proposed site sits within Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca’s district. And while the councilwoman submitted recommendations, spokeswoman Lisa Calderón said it doesn’t appear the administration genuinely considered all other options.

Additional sites should be rolled out in neighboring districts, particularly in the Capitol Hill area, Calderon said.

“The fear is that if you just put the site in (CdeBaca’s district), that conversation may just stop there,” Calderon said.

If that happens, an already overburdened neighborhood will be used as an experimental site once more, she said.

Chandler acknowledged the opposition within the neighborhood but said the site’s still remote but accessible.

“It’s a third of a mile from the nearest residence, which is on the other side of I-70,” Chandler said. “The problem is that it is within a neighborhood technically that is historically marginalized.”

Already Chandler said his organization has enough funding to keep the encampment open six months, if it’s needed that long. And staffing is on the way. All that’s needed now is City Council approval on the site, he said. The measure could go before the council in a week or two.

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