Support the independent voice of Denver and help keep Westword’s future free.
With emergency shelter in winter due to close in April, the city of Aurora is planning to set up new secure camping and parking spaces for people with homelessness – quickly.
“It’s about creating options, and that’s what we’re focusing on,” said Jessica Prosser, Aurora’s director of housing and community. “Building a brand new shelter has a long lead time and is very expensive. These secure outdoor areas offer an option that will be a little more nimble going forward to keep people safe and healthy.”
As the COVID pandemic continues and some homeless people either cannot or do not want to use emergency shelters, safe camping and parking spaces are becoming more common across Colorado. Denver has two safe campsites since December and a third is on the way. Aurora already has one too: in January, the city set up a secure campsite right next to the 100-bed emergency shelter that was set up last fall in an industrial area in the north-west of the city.
There are around thirty ice fishing tents with heaters and raised pallets in Aurora’s safe campsite. About a dozen nearby parking spaces are reserved for people living in their vehicles. However, currently the tents are being used as COVID isolation areas. “At the shelter, we really hoped to have safe camping for anyone interested, but it had to be changed due to COVID outbreaks,” said councilor Alison Coombs.
On February 17, Aurora launched a call for proposals, noting that up to $ 450,000 in federal grants are available to service providers willing to establish secure camping or parking spaces on private land. The grant covers up-front costs for tents and infrastructure at these locations, which typically include long-lasting tents with heaters, portable toilets, and hand-washing stations. The city wants nonprofits to cover ongoing operational costs such as case management services. The deadline for proposals was February 24th; The city is moving fast because the shelter will close in two months. Officials hope to have at least one new website up and running by May.
The location is still undetermined, but “access to transportation” is important, says Lana Dalton, director of homelessness programs at Aurora.
She also believes setting up locations in different parts of Aurora could help educate the “not in my back yard” crowd. “It gives the community a sense of what it might be like to have something more permanent or semi-permanent in their neighborhood,” says Dalton.
Coombs agrees. “It provides an opportunity to address many of people’s concerns and complaints about trash, public nudity, bathing and public urination,” she notes, “because there will actually be facilities that people can use privately.”
Prosser and Dalton estimate that between 300 and 400 people are homeless in Aurora; The city currently has a capacity for 300 people in emergency shelters and on the existing parking lots and campsites. However, the capacity will drop to around 150 when the emergency facilities close. Because the schedule is so tight, Aurora opened its call for proposals to organizations with which the city already has a contract. The Salvation Army, for example, is “in discussion with a partner organization about a joint effort,” according to Kristen Baluyot of the Salvation Army.
Although Aurora did not seek suggestions from the Colorado Village Collaborative, the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, or Earthlinks, the three nonprofits that operate the two existing safe campsites in Denver, Prosser and Dalton, have visited both locations. “We picked up on a lot of the suggestions and connections they made there,” says Dalton.
But Aurora has some ideas of its own, including setting up the temporary locations in places that could later be converted into more permanent shelters. “Ultimately, the idea is that the people who are in these secure outdoor areas can be housed,” says Prosser, suggesting that the locations could one day house tiny houses or some other form of living space.
Although Aurora city council members disagree on how to deal with homelessness, Coombs believes the city council will approve contracts to establish safe campsites. “Some of my colleagues are concerned about funding support for the indigenous people in our community, as well as anything they believe is preventing people from bringing their lives together,” she says.
Unlike Denver, Aurora does not have a ban on camping, but city officials are still cleaning up unofficial camps that, according to the Aurora website, “pose a significant threat to the community or public health or a security threat within the camp and the surrounding area.”
Keep Westword Free … Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we want to keep it that way. We offer our readers free access to concise coverage of local news, food and culture. Produce stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands with bold coverage, stylish writing, and staff, everything from the Society of Professional Journalists’ Sigma Delta Chi Feature Writing Award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism have won. With the existence of local journalism under siege and setbacks having a greater impact on advertising revenue, it is more important than ever for us to raise support for funding our local journalism. You can help by joining our “I Support” membership program which allows us to continue to cover Denver without paywalls.
Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a Westword employee, where he covers a range of topics including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and enjoys talking about New York sports.