Grand Junction is the latest Colorado city to consider sanctioned camping to help unhoused residents amid statewide housing crisis

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Tom Hesse/CPR News
Tents setup in Desert Vista Park in Grand Junction, March 25, 2024.

Grand Junction has invested millions in housing efforts in recent years, but city leaders continue to field calls for action to support the city’s unhoused residents and limit the public impacts of the crisis.

As long-term housing is developed, the city is asked to consider short-term measures that would allow people experiencing homelessness to have a safe place to rest.

Sometimes called “sanctioned camping,” the proposals range from safe parking areas for people living in their cars to micro-communities and public land where people can use tents.

Grand Junction leaders again raised the topic following a City Council vote rejecting rule changes that would ban tents in city parks during daytime hours. Overnight camping is already prohibited except in cases when shelters are full.

During that meeting, some council members said they would support such a move if there were more options for unhoused residents, including sanctioned camping. 

Now, Grand Junction is researching forms of interim housing. The city’s Interim Housing Working Group is conducting public outreach that might inform future code changes, should the city find enough support for the ideas. City Council Member Randall Reitz said the concept of interim housing is to create a bridge toward more robust goals.

“What we're missing right now is (having) more interim housing that can be moved around (so) that people have a sanctioned place to live — some sort of a space to live within where they're not going to be harassed,” Reitz said. “Beyond that, currently, we have a lot of people just living on the streets or on the riverbanks or in parks, and our goal is to move them. Less people living in the parks and in the streets and more people living in places where they can live with some sort of legitimacy.”

Interim housing has been tried in several places, including on the Western Slope, and city leaders said it can be challenging. In Delta, City Manager Elyse Ackerman Casselberry said the COVID-19 pandemic was among the factors that forced them to try to provide a designated space for unhoused residents to camp.

Nathaniel Minor/CPR News
Grand Junction, Colorado, seen from the Colorado National Monument.

The project did allow resource providers to connect with residents and helped with some of the environmental impacts of dispersed campsites in town, but it couldn’t last, Ackerman Casselberry said.

“It was not a safe location for those individuals. They're probably not safe elsewhere, either, but we were condoning the lack of safety by continuing to offer that site. It was especially not a safe location for the homeless women in our community," she said. “Safe place to rest means safe and it was not.”

Ackerman Casselberry said one fault was a lack of staffing for the project, which was set up in a former horse arena. That’s also a big concern for Grand Junction City Council, Reitz said.

“Having sufficient staffing on site is essential, having enough structure in place — like bathrooms and dry spaces — are pretty essential, but if you try and do it halfway, it almost always falls apart,” he said. 

The City of Grand Junction has taken a step in recent months that could be a model, should it move forward with an interim housing option. An unhoused resource center was funded with nearly $1 million in city funds and is being staffed by a pair of nonprofit providers in town. It’s intended for daytime use and was meant to fill a gap created by the closure of a downtown park frequented by people experiencing homelessness.

Tonja Baker, who lives in an RV often parked on Bureau of Land Management land, uses the resource center and said she likes the idea of a safe parking option. 

“I've had my generator stolen so I have no electricity. Water is a really hard thing, especially when you have dogs and stuff like that. I think they should have a (sanctioned) camping area that has people who have RVs and pull behind campers that don't have to worry about it when they leave, if they come back if it's going to be there, or if someone's broken into it,” she said.

Stephania Vasconez, executive director of Mutual Aid Partners, said Baker’s thoughts reflect a common sentiment among the people she talks to.

“I think that anybody listening to that, (who) has a very different perspective would be like, ‘Wait, really? They just want a place to just have running water and electricity and to have a place to park and leave their stuff and come back and it's not stolen? That seems pretty normal.’ It's those needs that we all have and so I think that there would be a lot of common ground that would help with some of that mutual understanding about what folks that are unhoused are wanting,” Vasconez said. 

While some of the needs are simple on paper — trash service, restrooms, and safety — officials in areas that have tried various interim housing strategies say it comes with challenges. In addition to resources and staffing, it only takes a few bad incidents to spoil the public’s attitude on such proposals.

Durango Police Chief Bob Brammer — who was recently promoted to assistant city manager — said a few styles of sanctioned camping were tried in La Plata County. Brammar said the experiences showed that sanctioned sites weren’t for everyone.

“We explored the safe parking, we explored the managed camp component of it,” he said. “But again, we had a managed camp. We've researched other communities that have those and talking to the (unhoused) people that we have here, they don't want that. They want to be left alone. They want to be dispersed. They want to be able to live their lives how they choose to live them.” 

Vasconez said it can be unproductive to speak generally about people experiencing homelessness. It’s true that unhoused neighbors are looking to be left alone, she said, but that often can be a source of mistrust, concern for what might happen to their pets in a sanctioned area, or the stigma and mental health challenges associated with being forced to live outside for extended periods.

“I think that when you start to identify what those barriers are to what is the actual reason that you would rather be left alone or you'd rather live outside, that you're going to start to find out that there's an ideology behind it and that there's barriers that we can certainly address,” Vasconez said. “It's not a one-size-fits-all.”

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Riverside Park in Riverside, in the oldest neighborhood in Grand Junction.

Grand Junction is still several meetings, public hearings, and workshops away from a change that would open up interim housing. Reitz said it’s important that the city council be judicious about its approach, and that he favors a “low and slow” strategy.

“What I don't want us to do is to be like another Delta or Durango that come back and say, ‘You know what? That was a mistake. I wouldn't do that again.’ I would like us to be thoughtful about it, to change the zoning code so we can actually have this be part of the structure of government and the structure of our city,” he said. “And so if that means taking three more months to get the code ready, to do some public input, I'm all for waiting another couple months.” 

Speaking with CPR News at the unhoused resource center in early March, Raven Cook said interim housing would benefit unhoused residents, particularly if it was paired with resources toward finding employment and stability.  

“That would be more beneficial because these people are very proud. They don't like being homeless, but they don't like to ask for help either,” Cook said. “So if they were able to help themselves, then I believe that would be a little more morale boosting and I don't know, that would help them out more than giving them a place to just go hang out.” 

Cook added that the incentives wouldn’t have to be that great to draw users. 

“To get me to use a facility like that? Gosh, it wouldn't take a whole lot,” Cook said. “I hate being cold.”