Rosemarie Palafox-Alfaro woke up late on the night of September 17 to someone screaming “fire”.
“It was very scary and I didn’t know what was going on at first,” she said.
After she and other residents of a city-sanctioned tent camp near Denver Health were evacuated, Palafox-Alfaro learned the fire had been stopped just before it set fire to her tent, where she had a new laptop, sheets , blankets and other household items than She was preparing to move to a new apartment.
Thirty-seven residents were displaced by the fire and 16 people lost everything they owned when the fire destroyed the outdoor safe area for Indians operated by the Colorado Village Collaborative at the corner of West Eighth Avenue and Elati Street.
Cooperative personnel on site helped everyone evacuate quickly and no one was injured. Firefighters were able to contain the fire within minutes.
The co-op knew it had to leave the Denver Health campus in December because the lease expired. But now that 16 tents out of 41 available have been destroyed, there is added pressure to rebuild the makeshift shelters ahead of the holidays and as cold weather sets in.
Prevent another fire
Nearly 100 volunteers came together to help set up a new sanctioned tent community at the Arie P. Taylor Municipal Center at East 47th Avenue and Peoria Street in the Montbello neighborhood. Some are regular helpers, popping up every time the collaboration starts a new community; others are from the Denver Health Community or another local human services organization. A handful of residents who lived on the site are also working to rebuild their new homes, said Cuica Montoya, program director for the Colorado Village Collaborative, which oversees safe outdoor areas.
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Work at Montbello is being directed by the Denver Fire Department to ensure their site plans, operational policies and procedures continue to reduce the likelihood of another fire, said Gray Waletich, a senior director with the Colorado Village Collaborative responsible for building the safe perimeters is.
That includes increasing the distance between tents from 2½ feet to 5 feet to keep the fire from spreading quickly and allowing for quicker extinguishing, Waletich said.
A safety committee will help ensure those precautions are implemented, and the group will produce a document detailing those plans that can be shared system-wide, she said. Two secure outdoor areas are currently in operation.
The Colorado Village Collaborative will purchase a special outdoor hose at each site specifically for emergencies, ensure fire extinguishers are operational and ensure the new site is adequately lit with ramps that are accessible to those with disabilities, Waletich said.
The cause of the fire is still unclear.
“The fire was devastating to our community members, our employees, our neighborhood and Denver Health,” Montoya said.
Prioritization of the indigenous people
The Native American safe outdoor area prioritizes Aboriginal people living in vulnerable homelessness. Native Americans make up 1% of Denver’s population, but represent 6% of the population affected by homelessness in the city.
“It has been doubly devastating for our community members because some have lost everything they owned and this community has already seen so much displacement in its generational history and in its current history and it has been extremely devastating. But we did our best to support them,” Montoya said.
People displaced by the fire have been placed in emergency shelters, including through a partnership with the Denver Street Outreach Collaborative’s Bridge Housing Hotels, managed by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. The Gathering Place — the only day care center in Metro Denver that serves women, transgender people and their children — also has an emergency shelter program that has housed some displaced residents of the Native American site, Montoya said.
Four Winds Indian Council also raised funds to replace items lost in the fire, and the Colorado Village Collaborative initiated a campaign to purchase gift cards for the 16 people who lost everything when their makeshift tent homes burned down.
The Native American Housing Circle, formed in 2019 to address the over-representation of Native Americans in local homelessness, also worked to create a safe outdoor space for Native Americans with the City of Denver. They have also advised Colorado Village Collaborative since the inception of the Native American-Inclusive Locations program.
An art mural will be painted by an indigenous artist when the Montbello site opens. The site will also support traditional Native American ceremonies. A former resident who is now housed leads beading workshops, a tradition that represents Aboriginal resilience and is considered sacred tribal art.
“We sometimes have a drum circle during sunrise,” Montoya said. “It really just depends on who’s there and what cultural practices and traditions and ceremonies they want there. What we are doing is prioritizing their presence in our program in a dedicated space where they feel their cultures, traditions and practices can be honored.”
But few of the people displaced by the fire want to move to the new location, Montoya said.
“I don’t see a lot of them wanting to relocate and uproot,” Montoya said. “People have this sense of stability. There are a few that want to help create the new site and bring the spirit of the old site into the space. So we’re going to have a handful — less than five of our original people moving into the new location — but then we’re going to be recording people in the neighborhood and other identified Native Americans and offering them the new space. ”
Safe outdoor areas are often temporary and typically operate for a year or two on private property or unused public land leased to the Colorado Village Collaborative. The communities are staffed 24 hours a day with staff to help residents find services that can help them transition into employment and permanent housing. The rooms include toilet and shower facilities, a place to wash and regular meals.
Every time a secure outdoor area moves, it costs $300,000, Montoya said. The Colorado Village Collaborative is always looking for landowners willing to lease land to the organization to house a temporary, long-term, or permanent secure outdoor space as an alternative shelter.
The Colorado Village Collaborative hopes to open a fourth safe outdoor space in Q3 2023.
“With costs rising and staff shortages, we really want to make sense in our expansion,” Montoya said. “But we hope to explore other options to expand existing spaces as well.”
“It was much more peaceful than in the other camps”
Palafox-Alfaro lived in unstable housing before moving out and into an animal shelter. She had driven past a safe perimeter at East 38th Avenue and Steele Street in the Clayton neighborhood many times, and eventually asked a clerk at the St. Francis Center, which had recently purchased the Barnum safe perimeter at 221 Federal Boulevard, if it was there was room for her.
The clerk said all of the outside safe areas are full with long waiting lists, but the site, which includes Native Americans, may give priority to Palafox-Alfaro, who is part of the Rosebud Sioux tribe who have their reservation in South Dakota.
The Colorado Village Collaborative prioritizes Native Americans recommended by Indigenous organizations and other referral partners.
“We have a plan to create a welcoming committee so that people can learn more about the indigenous people and respect the space,” Montoya said. “It will be composed of people who live in the space to provide guidance to non-Indigenous people to explain why this is important in the community.”
Palafox-Alfaro lived on the compound, which included Native Americans, until the fire.
“It was nice and quiet,” she says. “It was much more peaceful than the other camps. It helps to have people who are from your culture. It helped me a lot because they connected me to school and college.”
Palafox-Alfaro is now a student at Metropolitan State University, where she is studying to become a construction project manager. Safe Outside Area leaders helped her find an apartment in Glendale, which she pays for with a shelter voucher that gives priority to Native Americans, she said.
“It’s great. I love it,” she said Tuesday night in her new apartment. “I love having peace and more space.”
MORE: The Colorado Village Collaborative is asking for volunteers to help build the Native American site at 4685 Peoria St. via an online form and to donate to the organization for operating costs.