In the midst of COVID-19, it seems like every day presents new public health guidelines, new struggles and new environmental issues. One of these issues is safe camping and the benefits of organized …
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In the midst of COVID-19, it seems like every day presents new public health guidelines, new struggles and new environmental issues. One of these issues is safe camping and the benefits of organized encampments for the health and well-being of our city and those individuals who are experiencing homelessness.
There was an opportunity just months ago during the stay-at-home orders for Colorado Gov. Jared Polis to exercise his executive emergency powers to take over hotels or other vacant properties for our growing housing crisis. The annual Point in Time survey — an annual national snapshot of homelessness, overseen in the Denver region by the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative — found that 4,000 people experiencing homelessness were in shelters during the 24-hour period in which the Point in Time was conducted. Denver Homeless Out Loud produced its own count, which estimates that about 2,000 people are living outside or in their cars.
Matt Meyer, the executive director of the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative, said the pandemic, which has slowed the economy and led to massive job loss, had likely worsened the crisis of homelessness.
According to the Eviction Defense Project analysis, “almost 500,000 Coloradans may face eviction risk in the months ahead, with further increases anticipated as unemployment increases and stay-at-home orders are extended.” An analysis by the Party of Socialism and Liberation-Denver estimates there are more than 1,200 vacant empty apartment units in 10 apartment buildings alone. For years, activists have been pushing politicians to use these vacant spaces as homes for the unhoused. The resistance to that action has instead shifted elected officials to organize safe outdoor camping as an immediate policy solution.
It is a real shame here in Colorado that we have such inequity in use of public lands and camping. If one has the means and the transportation, then they can access public lands and camping with amenities. Denver Mountain Parks maintains campsites that provide water, showers, bathrooms and waste disposal. When there is a plan for the management of waste, our waterways and the public health of those camping is protected.
For a long time, our city has needed public water fountains, public restrooms and a well-developed trash receptacle system. In fact, in 2015, I campaigned for Denver City Council District 9 on meeting these basic needs, and since then, only a handful of mobile restrooms were constructed. It seems reasonable that if these types of camping amenities are provided to those with means, then a solution can be found for safe camping in the city. Every human has the right to access these utilities.
Of the 11 sites identified by members of Denver’s city council that potentially could serve as a campsite, at least seven are uncovered asphalt.
Take, for example, the Denver Coliseum parking lot. I understand that this selection is tied to the fact that Denver owns the facility and wouldn’t have to pay substantial rent for its use, but I believe smaller distributed sites would be more suitable than this location. Camping on asphalt in August. Directly adjacent to some of the highest levels of air pollution in the state. Not to mention the small particles being dug up for the construction of the I-70 ditch in the midst of a pandemic. It is illogical to place campers here where high temperatures lead to higher levels of ozone creation from the volatile organic compounds emitted from the highway during a respiratory pandemic. Let me be clear, the residents of Globeville Elyria Swansea also deserve protection from air pollution in this pandemic.
Dating back to 1914, people used campsites at City Park. Denver Homeless Outloud is calling for small campsites in neighborhoods across the city. This type of distributed camping would make life easier for those with jobs and seeking employment because they could cut down on commute time. It seems humane and equitable for each community to be able to take on shade and basic amenities instead of a concrete jungle.
I have worked in the large events industry for a decade. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, there are many unemployed event producers with direct skills to safely manage campsites. They also have experience with resolving mental health crises without involving the police. Safe camping is a win-win to put people back to work and to protect the constitutional and human rights of those experiencing homelessness during this global health and economic crisis.
Ean Thomas Tafoya is a climate and government activist. He can be reached at @BelieveEan on Twitter.
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