Ice-fishing tents have become a new shelter alternative for Colorado's homeless.
Ice-fishing tents have become a new shelter alternative for Colorado's homeless. Safe Outdoor Spaces

The Mile High City has launched a new solution to an old problem, and at the center of it all are ice-fishing tents. Following a national trend the number of homeless people in Denver has been ascending in recent years. As the country faces a housing shortage, home prices in Colorado have reached record highs. Meanwhile, the December wildfires between Denver and Boulder destroyed hundreds of homes, forcing victims to seek temporary residences. And, of course, the pandemic has only made things worse: More homeless people have sought alternatives to public shelters to avoid the risk of transmission in densely populated indoor facilities. 

Then there are those, like Gary Peters, who avoid public shelters altogether. Before getting his ice-fishing tent, Peters camped in woods near a Denver golf course to avoid sleeping in a public shelter—for seven years. “I’d rather freeze than spend the night in a shelter,” Peters told the AP, citing the threat of assault or theft.

But now Peters has relocated to one of four new communities run by the Colorado Village Collaborative’s Safe Outdoor Spaces program. Each leased location is fenced off with a key-code entrance. In exchange for agreeing not to bring weapons onto the property, sell drugs, or disrupt neighbors, residents are offered an insulated 42-square-foot ice-fishing tent equipped with electrical outlets, a cot and a zero-degree rated sleeping bag. They also have access to daily meals, wireless internet, showers, and trash and laundry services. If they need it, they can get additional support for indoor housing, employment, legal resources and physical and mental health services through partnerships the collaborative has with other city organizations.

An ice fishing tent village.
An ice-fishing tent village in Colorado. Safe Outdoor Spaces photo

This year, the collaborative expects to support 370 people through the program.

While critics posit that the tents take the government off the hook for providing long term indoor housing solutions, collaborative co-founder and executive director Cole Chandler suggests otherwise. His organization advocates for policy change and more investment in affordable housing, but until those changes happen, he sees the Safe Outdoor Spaces program as the best alternative.

“We don’t have enough housing,” he said. “And so in the meantime, how do we take care of people? And how do we build the types of cities that reflect our values?”

His answer: ice-fishing tents.