DENVER — Denver City Council is expected to vote Monday on a zoning ordinance that would make Safe Outdoor Spaces (SOS) permanent.
These spaces began as a pandemic solution to support those experiencing homelessness. Now, the city plans to permit the camps the same way they do tiny home villages.
At an unsanctioned homeless encampment at Mississippi and Santa Fe, Craig Arfsten with Citizens for a Safe and Clean Denver notes several dangers.
"There's some needles," he said as he and a Denver7 crew walked through the area. "This is not compassion to say this is OK."
The group doesn't believe the sponsored Safe Outdoor Spaces are compassionate. They argue the barrier for entry is too low, and bad behaviors — like drug use — continue even in the areas.
"Continuation of the Safe Outdoor Spaces, SOS, does not really address the core issue of what you have out here today. The core issue is drug addiction and mental illness," Arfsten said. "There's very little accountability from the organizations that run the SOS sites in terms of crime, as far as being open with the information.
Citizens for a Safe and Clean Denver argues housing-first models never work and that you must prioritize getting people help.
"In Alberta, Canada, they have a model up there called recovery communities, and those communities house between 65 and 125 individuals — men, women and mentally ill. They're there for about a year. And, of course, there's not 100% success, but that is a very successful model, and it's based around structure and drug treatment and not continuing negative behavior," Arfsten said. "If we had an ideal city, then everyone would be modeling that city."
Denver approves $7.5M in funding to keep Safe Outdoor Spaces through 2024
SOS advocate Councilman Chris Hinds believes the housing-first model does work.
"The data is very compelling. We've had 540 guests come through the Safe Outdoor Spaces — 180 of them have found permanent housing," Hinds said.
SOS sites were authorized under a 2020 unlisted use determination, which is valid through December 31, 2023. Hinds and Councilwoman Robin Kniech proposed the ordinance to move SOS sites under the same zoning code "that governs temporary tiny home villages," the city said.
"Not that people stay in them permanently, but that it's a permanent option for people to temporarily use as they move up the spectrum of homelessness into housing," Hinds said.
Both mayoral candidates have said homelessness will be a top priority. Arfsten says a lot is running on the mayoral runoff.
"The future of the city rides on that person, whether it's Mike (Johnston) or Kelly (Brough). And this is what they need to do to take care of this, and it's not moving them into neighborhoods," he said.