On second try, Grand Junction City Council bans tents in parks

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

Grand Junction city leaders on Wednesday approved a plan to ban tents during daytime use, citing concerns for public safety. 

City Council voted 5-1 on the change to park rules, with members divided over whether the issue amounted to pushing the homeless crisis down the road or making a change in the interest of public health and safety.

City Council Member Scott Beilfuss was the lone member to vote against the measure. He said a blanket change based on concerns over one park would have negative impacts on the unhoused community as a whole.  

“We’re spending all our focus and attention focusing on the bad things going on in Desert Vista (Park). Why are we penalizing all the people that are just trying to be safe, just trying to have some dignity?” Beilfuss said. 

The new rules apply to daytime use and will take effect in seven days — a provision to allow time to inform the community. Overnight camping is already banned in Grand Junction, except in cases when shelter beds are full. 

City Council previously rejected 5-2 a change in city park rules that would ban such structures during the day. At that February meeting, council members voiced concerns about what alternatives were available to unhoused residents if they couldn’t rest in parks.

This time around, the request for a rule change came with the emphatic backing of law enforcement. At a work session earlier this week, Grand Junction Police Chief Matt Smith advocated for the park rule change, saying that the tents posed a safety risk to residents and police officers. 

“It’s sort of this territorial sense when you go into these parks now,” Smith said, adding “I don’t know what it is about these structures. It’s not scientific. But I can tell you that it’s a huge, huge difference.” 

Grand Junction’s unhoused crisis has been front and center for months, with the city taking steps that have both been applauded and criticized by homeless service providers. In September the city closed a park frequented by residents experiencing homelessness. They later funded a resource center to try and backfill some of the advantages of the park. That unhoused resource center has been open for three months, and advocates are optimistic about the early results. More than 100 people visit the center each day.

Still, the closure of Whitman Park and scheduled work at another nearby park have pushed unhoused residents farther east of downtown, now occupying Desert Vista Park, which also serves as the median between the east and westbound traffic of the Interstate 70 Business Loop through town. Since unhoused residents began setting up there, Smith said calls for service are up in that area.

Council Member Cody Kennedy was among those who changed his vote since February, opting to support the tent ban. He said he was swayed by safety concerns.

“If I had a time machine, I’d go back and pass it the first time it was proposed,” Kennedy said. 

A number of advocates pushed Council to reconsider the vote, noting concerns for unhoused residents. Grand Junction Mayor Abe Herman said he was empathetic to the needs of the unhoused community but said continued use of tents would undermine efforts to help. 

“This is not a safe, consistent place to sleep in Desert Vista Park, and it doesn’t do us any good to pretend that it is,” Herman said. 

When the plan was initially rejected, some council members said they wanted to wait until they could take action on an interim housing plan, which might allow for things like safe parking places or designated campgrounds. While that plan has not yet been approved, the city’s interim housing workgroup has been developing a framework that was pitched to City Council during a work session Monday.