Grand Junction closes park considered ‘center of the homeless community’

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Ryan Warner/CPR News
Metal barricades were erected around Whitman Park in downtown Grand Junction on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023. The park was a regular gathering spot for unhoused residents and is set for a future renovation.

About $26,000 worth of steel barricades now encircle the primary gathering place for Grand Junction’s unhoused residents. 

The city of Grand Junction this week closed off Whitman Park, a 2.75-acre green space whose neighbors include an auto repair shop, the Grand Junction Police Department and a pawn shop that was raided by local law enforcement for multiple felony counts of selling stolen goods. It is bracketed on the north and south by two lanes of Interstate 70 Business Loop traffic. 

Scott Beilfuss, who was elected to the Grand Junction City Council in April and sits on the city’s homeless coalition, said he was hoping that the decision would happen after the council was presented with the results of an ongoing homelessness survey and following a public hearing, neither of which occurred. 

“I'm concerned about it. My constituents have been reaching out to me saying, ‘what the heck is going on,’” Beilfuss said. “It's the center of the homeless community, especially the chronically homeless and it shouldn't be taken lightly. They’re residents.” 

In a press release, the city of Grand Junction said this was the first step in a plan to improve the park. For now, Whitman Park will be open on a reservation basis only. The city said it is taking steps to inform the homeless residents of resources available to them. 

“In addition to notices posted in the park, visitors to Whitman Park are being notified about the closure by city staff and Grand Junction Police Department Community Resource Officers who will also provide resources and/or housing information as well as contacts for local service providers and shelters,” the release said. “Following the closure on September 12, next steps for the park include a design process with public input planned for 2024.” 

No official comment from city council was included, though the release notes the rich history of Whitman Park, like that it was previously called “Maple Park,” that its tree canopy is 100 years old and that it featured a bandstand built in 1889. 

In an interview, Grand Junction Parks and Recreation Director Ken Sherbenou said the decision to close the park was based in part on previous closures that were done for maintenance. City ordinance already prohibits sleeping in city parks and the park has been closed at other points, which informed this decision. 

Ryan Warner/CPR News
A sign announces the recent closure of Whitman Park in downtown Grand Junction. The park is a regular gathering spot for unhoused residents and is set for a future renovation.

“So in October, 2022 as well as in April, 2023, we closed the park and that was important for one, maintenance, it has a very mature tree canopy, which is one of the reasons why it has a lot of potential. And we use those closure timeframes to ensure the health of the urban tree canopy as well as the larger park in general,” Sherbenou said. “We also knew that there was going to be impacts that would happen out of those closures, and so it helped us learn about how to hopefully anticipate and to mitigate some of those impacts.” 

Those impacts, Sherbenou said, included things like where the people experiencing homelessness would go. Part of the closure is meant to connect residents with housing services. 

“Why now is because I think the city is really trying to do a lot to support the unhoused community and service providers,” Sherbenou said. 

Advocates miffed 

Eric Niederkruger is a vocal advocate for the homeless community and also helps organize a free-meal event at Whitman Park for unhoused residents. He said he was taken aback by the decision. 

“I feel like many of us in the helping community were betrayed by the city. We had a meeting with them 10 days ago, nine of us, and we were saying we wanted to work closer with the city and what can we do to collaborate,” he said. “Nine days ago, they said nothing about shutting down this park.” 

Data from the Common Sense Institute, a nonprofit think tank, says Grand Junction’s homeless population increased around 43 percent since 2019 and in their 2023 report said the city’s “homelessness problem stands out among Colorado’s largest cities — as a share of the city’s total population, its homeless population is 14% higher than Denver’s, 75% higher than Boulder’s, and 165% higher than Colorado Springs’.” 

Niederkruger said closing down the park, and scattering its residents, means that it will be harder for advocates and charities to find and assist them. 

“We have meals here that are weekly and people plan on months ahead of time to do it,” Niederkruger said. “We have plenty of churches, we have plenty of civic organizations that come down here. They weren't informed (of the closure).” 

Where to now?

Beilfuss said there is a concern that closing the park will send people elsewhere. Emerson Park a few blocks away, which the city has pegged as the site of a future skate park, has drawn more frequent unhoused visitors in recent years.

“Where did they go? I mean, it may make the problem worse if they're moving into the downtown area deeper and we need some options for them. That's all there is to it. The problem is very large,” Beilfuss said. 

Sherbenou, the Grand Junction Parks and Recreation director, said that is a concern for city staff. However, he said part of the challenge with Whitman was that so many people were in such a small park. 

“I've really come to believe that unhoused are going to be present in the park facilities and that's okay and that's fine. They have a right to be there just like everyone else has a right to be there,” Sherbenou said. “But when they're outnumbering the general public, then it becomes a feeling that people are less likely to go use that playground or less likely to go use that field. And so a lot of our philosophy is really trying to activate these spaces so that it can be shared-use by everyone.” 

The city has made efforts to support housing providers in that very area. The city previously purchased land just across the street and to the west of Whitman Park. It was donated to Catholic Outreach, a group that provides homeless services, which is working to build an apartment complex there for vulnerable members of the unhoused community.