November saw the first snowfall of this winter in Denver, Colorado. On the sidewalk just outside Sustainability Park, a group of homeless advocates—many of them homeless themselves—set up camp for the night. Just behind them, the gates to the park were chained shut, and signs reading “No Trespassing” were hung periodically along the fencing posts. An additional chain-link fence had been erected the previous day around an oak tree just outside the park, blocking off the exact spot the group had been planning to sleep, pushing them out to the sidewalk. Just before the storm began they were joined by others from a nearby homeless encampment that was broken up by the police. That separate group had been ordered to “move along” under the reasoning that their sleeping bags and blankets constituted a violation of the city’s 2012 camping ban. They all huddled together as their tents shook in the wind and became coated in snow.
Encampment outside Sustainability Park in Denver, CO, during the year’s first snow.
The chains on the gates, the new signage, and the extra fencing all had occurred in response to this group’s recent actions. Known as Denver Homeless Out Loud, in the weeks before the snowfall they had engaged in a combination of creative housing development and civil disobedience. This drew riot police, jail time, and controversy. Their story reflects much of the current dynamics of the problem of homelessness in the United States, a crisis that has grown so out of control that since September a state of emergency over the issue has been declared in the cities of Los Angeles, Seattle, and Portland, and the entire state of Hawaii. Many cities are ramping up efforts to assist those in need. At the same time, they are also increasingly criminalizing homeless behaviors.
Two weeks before the snowfall, Denver Homeless Out Loud made the provocative and intriguing move of building a small village of “tiny homes” in Sustainability Park. These little houses were to be the start of a long-term solution to the city’s pronounced homelessness problem.
The activists chose this location because it had historically been the site of low-income housing. Sustainability Park is owned by the Denver Housing Authority, a “quasi-municipal” corporation funded largely by the federal government. The housing was taken down in the 90’s, and since 2012, the area has been used by an urban farming collective. The name “Sustainability Park” seems somewhat ironic since its use as a park has always been a short-term arrangement. Now the Denver Housing Authority is selling the site to a private developer. Plans for the area include a new housing development focused on energy efficiency. Those plans also appear to devote 10% of the new units to affordable housing, keeping in accord with the minimum requirement set by the city’s “inclusionary housing ordinance.” Such planning brings to mind South Park’s recent “SoDoSoPa” routine that sharply parodied the tone of just this kind of rapid gentrification. For their part, the Denver Homeless Out Loud community sees this plan for a mixed-income development to fail to address the community’s needs. They claim that even the low end of what will count as an affordable price still far exceeds what many are able to pay.
Across the country, there is an increasing interest in “housing first” responses to the problem of chronic homelessness. Traditional responses usually involve guiding the homeless off the streets through stages, sometimes through shelters and transitional housing, and often requiring that a list of qualifications be met before advancement (such as first addressing substance abuse issues, or first participating in multi-step programs). Housing first initiatives turn this logic on its head. They instead emphasize foremost getting people into permanent housing, and providing assistance with other issues from there. The surprising aspect of these programs is their cost effectiveness: it can be cheaper for cities to simply provide the homeless with homes, rather than continuously accrue the mounting costs of emergency health services, shelter provisions, law enforcement, and criminal prosecution. The state of Utah adopted a housing first model in 2005 and has become the go-to success story for this strategy, reporting a 91% drop in chronic homelessness. There are multiple possible paths to achieve these ends. One promising option has been the distribution Section 8 Housing Choice vouchers that help people get into permanent housing with rent subsidies. In San Francisco, there has even been a successful effort to transfer an entire homeless encampment into a housing center.
The “tiny homes” trend is another idea that fits within the larger housing first ethos. Such initiatives involve the construction of individual residences that can resemble tool sheds. The movement is gaining momentum, in part because projects can begin on a small scale. Inspired by the success of tiny homes settlements in Oregon, such as Dignity Village and Opportunity Village, the Denver Homeless Out Loud collective set out to begin their own.
After a year of unsuccessful petitioning for a legal place to build a tiny homes community, they chose the site of Sustainability Park, despite the park’s transitioning ownership. The Denver Homeless Out Loud members had always opposed the sale of this land for private development anyway. For two months the group built the tiny homes by hand.
A “tiny home” under construction in Sustainability Park.
On October 24th, with a large crowd of supporters present and celebrating, two tiny homes were erected in the park, along with three semi-permanent tent structures. The small settlement was named “Resurrection Village.” It neither lasted long, nor ended well.
Police arrived within hours. According to The Colorado Independent, the brigade included “70 cops approaching in full riot gear.” A helicopter hovered loudly overhead. The crowd was ordered to disperse. The ten that stayed behind in the new homes were taken into custody. Resurrection Village was swiftly dismantled, its materials and tools yet to be returned. Arrested for trespassing on private property, those jailed were released on bail within two days. Returning to the park, they discovered the newly chained gates and the “No Trespassing” signage, the park’s posted hours clumsily covered over with duct tape.
New Signage at Sustainability Park
The group continued camping just outside the park. The chain-link fence still blocking the oak tree has been draped with ribbons and buttons. But as of the beginning of December, even this encampment has been broken up by the police, leaving the group searching for a new plan, and its homeless members without a tent community as the winter drags on.
It’s easy to file away the Resurrection Village tiny homes fiasco as a simple publicity stunt. That was certainly my impression before visiting the encampment last fall. But talking to Denver Homeless Out Loud members, I was surprised to learn just how eager they had been to live in those tiny houses. Sure, they understood that the village would in all likelihood be temporary. But they also had hoped it might provoke a longer term solution, as had Oregon’s tiny homes settlements. Most of all, those I talked to had not anticipated the immediacy of the city’s response, let alone its severity. So it was heartbreaking to hear from people, themselves homeless, who had looked forward to having a small, private, and individual space, even if only for a while.
As the country slowly claws out of the economic downturn, we face crucial questions about what this recovery should mean, what recovering cities should look like, and who should get recovered along the way. For cities looking to rebuild and rebrand, high-end development can be appealing. But it should not come at the expense of the up-front investments needed to make long-term impacts in our country’s homelessness crisis. And it should not involve the systematic persecution of those with nowhere else to go.