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Tent city bans haven't solved America's homelessness crisis. A Denver program is trying something new: Compassion.

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DENVER – Melting snow mingled with broken hypodermic needles on the park's grass as a ranger and a mental health counselor walked together.

Feet crunching across ice and scattered glass, Jodie Marozas and Tom Kaiser trod across what was once the crown jewel of Denver: Civic Center Park. Its history spans a century, back to a time when it was known for its architecture, concerts and plays.

More recently, it’s been a common location for Denver's growing unhoused population to sleep, rest and store belongings.

Marozas and Kaiser approach a man swaddled in sleeping bags and blankets prone on the cold stone of the 1,200-seat amphitheater. A scattering of trash, clothing and other items sit on the ground nearby, but roused from his sleep, the man says it's not his.

The ranger and counselor move on. Legally, he's breaking no rules: Denver's parks, after all, are supposed to be open to everyone.

Parks have become among the most visible places where unhoused people create their own shelters and communities. That became especially true during the COVID-19 pandemic, as many struggled to stay healthy and out of shelters they worried could make them sick.

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That morning's patrol is part of Denver's effort to respond to the crisis. The new program gives the people monitoring the parks a partner who is trained to help people who are seeking refuge there. 

That's Kaiser.

"People didn’t choose this," he said. "It’s not really about bad personal choices. It’s a systemic issue. Family, friends and society have failed them. It’s people who got the short end of the stick time and time again."

Cities often fight homelessness with rules and laws

Experts say the number of unhoused people – estimated at 590,000 as of January 2022 – is expected to rise as inflation, higher interest rates and rising rents push people from their homes.

Responding to political pressure from business owners, some cities have turned to draconian enforcement to push unhoused people away, including citywide sweeps to remove their belongings and tent cities.

Such enforcement measures are legally dubious and often fail in court. Widespread sweeps and bans have been ruled unconstitutional.

Denver rolled back some of its harshest enforcement efforts amid the court challenges.

Still, large areas of the Denver park have been fenced off and barred from public use, a reaction to what city officials say were increasing reports of drug dealing, use and associated assaults among unhoused people living there.

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About 2,000 people live unsheltered in Denver on any given night.

In Portland, Oregon, the number of unhoused people leaped 50% from 2019 to 2022, according to officials. Under pressure from the public, Mayor Ted Wheeler is moving forward with a camping ban, but says he's also also pushing hard to connect people to the services they want.

Other governments have declared states of emergency over homelessness, to make services and resources more accessible.

'Everything OK?'

Rounding a corner and climbing the stone steps out of the amphitheater, Kaiser and Marozas spot a pile of blankets tucked in a corner of a closed-off area.

Rangers and police erected barricades and signs to keep people out of this particular corner, where they'd received reports of drug deals and possible assaults, but someone has climbed over the fencing to find shelter from the winter's wind on a day where the temperature has not yet broken freezing.

"Park ranger," Marozas calls out several times. "Everything OK?"

After a few shouts, a head emerges from the blankets. The man says he's just resting for a few minutes. Legally, that doesn't matter: he's clearly ignored the closure.

While some rangers or police officers would simply ticket the man and move on, Marozas and Kaiser take a different approach.

"Hey, would you like some handwarmers?" Kaiser yells. "You want some Gatorade?"

Kaiser works for the mental-health service WellPower, and he and other clinicians are now paired with Denver rangers every day to patrol the city's trails and parks in an effort to help unhoused people get services and assistance, if they want it. They also remind them of the rules, which include bans on overnight camping or trespassing in closed areas.

The man scrambles to his feet, accepting both handwarmers and Gatorade, and begins explaining. He lost his housing in rural Wyoming a month ago, he says, and took a bus to Denver, where there's more opportunity for both housing and mental-health treatment.

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He tells them his name is Richard and that he's been diagnosed with several medical conditions, that he's already signed up for subsidized housing and is trying to save his disability payments to rent an apartment.

Under his breath, Kaiser notes there's a two-year wait for housing assistance, and then starts writing down the names and addresses of shelters and counseling centers.

Kaiser asks Richard for his last name, and he says his full name is actually Tony Cordoba.

“I’m just trying to find a place here,” says Cordoba, 53. “I haven’t got anywhere else right now.”

Kaiser hands him the small piece of paper with names, numbers and addresses, and checks that Cordoba knows where he can get a free cellphone so counselors at WellPower and other advocacy groups can reach him to schedule appointments and follow-up visits.

"You need as many people on your side as possible," Kaiser tells him.

Denver project is a different approach

Day after day, trail after park, the rangers and WellPower clinicians stop to chat with people who appear to be homeless. They approach tents and still-warm fire pits, hand out Gatorade and handwarmers, and try to balance enforcement with humanity. They avert their eyes from piles of human waste deposited in a back alley, and have an unsettling conversation with a man wearing Santa Claus pants.

And they ask: What do you need? How can we help?

While park rangers typically come from environmental stewardship backgrounds, the rapid growth in the numbers of unhoused people living in public areas has forced them to adjust.

While some cities simply toughened up enforcement, Denver's new approach gives rangers a new resource – the mental-health counselors – they never had before. The clinicians are trained in handling difficult conversations and in working with people diagnosed with mental illness. They are taught how respect those otherwise shunned by mainstream society.

New funding provided by Congress and the Biden Administration will help more cities start similar mental-health co-responder programs with police, but Denver and WellPower believe they are the first to pair counselors with park rangers.

The partnership helps address both the acute and ongoing needs of people experiencing homelessness, while helping minimize what many advocates for the unhoused see as heavy-handed police enforcement that violates the civil rights of the unhoused.

It's a painstakingly slow process with few notable immediate successes. The best the teams can hope for is finding someone temporary shelter and eventually setting them on a path to secure housing.

"If at the end of the day, all we can provide is water and hand warmers and a conversation, that's a win for me," says Kayla Bauer, another patrolling WellPower clinician. "It's not just about declaring they're in violation and saying 'let's get you off the street."

US elected officials feel pressure 'to do something' about homelessness

Nationally the unsheltered homeless population, which includes encampments, increased by more than 3% since 2020, according to recent data from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Chronic homelessness, which includes many people with disabilities, increased 15%.

Advocates say they're particularly seeing an increase in homelessness among LGBTQ teens and veterans.

In Portland, where there are an estimated 800 unsanctioned encampments spread across the city, Mayor Ted Wheeler said concern over homelessness has "reached a fever pitch" among the public.

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To address what he considers a humanitarian catastrophe, Wheeler plans to create a handful of large sanctioned camp sites and ban tent-living elsewhere. At the sanctioned sites, unhoused people will be connected to proper bathrooms, trash collection and mental health services – something that's easier to accomplish when service workers can target a handful of encampments, he said.

The city will also connect people to shelter and housing resources through the sanctioned sites, which will have around a 3-year lifetime, according to the mayor's office.

Wheeler said Portlanders don't want city officials to "just sweep people" from place to place.

“I feel that pressure to do something big, to do something bold, and to do something urgently. And I not only feel that pressure from my community, I’m putting myself under that pressure," Wheeler said.

But the city has yet to secure cooperation from the county and state governments to implement mental health and substance use recovery services at sanctions sites, the mayor's office said.

Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass declared a state of emergency over homelessness and said pressure to solve the city's crisis is what made her run for mayor. She's aiming to get 17,000 people off the streets of the city by the end of her first year in office.

In neighborhoods like Hollywood and Venice, outreach workers – many of whom have experienced homelessness themselves – have cleared entire encampments by offering motel rooms. The approach is not punitive and doesn't involve police, Bass said.

"We’re saying, 'We’ll be back in a couple of days, we want you to move, we have a place for you to stay for a few months and then after that we’re going to get you into permanent housing,'" Bass said. "We want to find out why you’re on the street, what happened that led to you being like this?”

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Other governments have tried less accommodating approaches: In the past year, Missouri and Tennessee enacted statewide camping bans, as have many other cities. The bans can lead to fines or jail time, which experts say make it harder for people experiencing homelessness to access social services, get a job or secure an apartment on their own. 

The incremental steps being taken in Denver, Portland and Los Angeles reflect the challenges in simultaneously addressing the often-interlocking needs of the unhoused. 

“It's a really difficult position that elected officials are in, under pressure to act," said Jeff Olivet, the executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. "But the real solutions take a long time to develop, and the expediency of short-term approaches sometimes wins out."

Steve Berg, the chief policy officer for the National Alliance to End Homelessness, said housing is the single-best way to get people off the streets. He said camping bans and other punitive approaches fail because they never address the root causes of homelessness and pit people against each other.

Back in Denver, ranger Caronia DiStefano scrambles up an embankment after checking on an abandoned tent with apparent drug paraphernalia scattered in front. Like many of her ranger colleagues, DiStefano's background is in environmental stewardship, but she's proud to be helping the people who use Denver's parks – regardless of their background.

"Going out and providing services and resources and getting people mental health services and drug treatment services, that’s really getting to the base issues we see," she said. "My main goal when we go out everyday is having a safe park and safe park users. We’re here to protect park users. That includes everybody.”