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Denver Parks and Rec hires record number of rangers to address homelessness

Denver Park Rangers
Posted at 11:43 AM, May 10, 2023

DENVER — This summer, you are more likely than ever before to run into a team of park rangers in Denver parks.

Seventeen additional rangers were hired in the last week, bringing the organization to the largest team it's ever had. Even still, you’ll have to keep an eye out to notice them — its largest team ever is about 45 rangers, which will be spread out among more than 200 parks.

At first glance, many confuse the rangers for police officers or sheriff’s deputies. However, they are very intentionally not criminal law enforcement.

“They’ll say, ‘Look out, it’s the police!’ And my first thing is ‘Where?!’” laughed Park Ranger Supervisor Alec Moore. “I’ve got pepper spray and a baton, but like, I don’t have handcuffs. We’re not armed.”

Moore and fellow supervisor Jessica Johnson are now working to onboard the department's newest recruits, growing their ranks just as the weather gets warmer and more people — of all backgrounds — start utilizing Denver’s parks more.

“Post COVID, we’re seeing a lot more use in parks,” Johnson said. “So, we’re seeing a lot more need for rangers out in the parks to make sure that the parks are safe and clean. And we’re keeping control of some of the violations we see.”

The violations they see, by and large, fall into main categories: issues related to unleashed dogs and issues related to homelessness. Last month, we reported that larger ranger teams were staggering patrols to engage with dog owners not following the rules. Now that the weather is getting warmer, the department is preparing for a higher need related to homelessness.

“Especially downtown, one of our biggest priorities is trying to look for people experiencing homelessness who are in the parks, who might need some resources,” Moore said. “Typically, these are people who we are going to contact multiple times, right? So we typically like to go with our general philosophy for enforcement, which is progressive compliance — basically, the minimal amount of enforcement that we can to get compliance with the park rules.”

Not having a home is not a violation of park rules. It is when tents, drugs, weapons or curfew violations come into play that rangers need to intervene. Their hope and goal always, Johnson and Moore said, is to connect individuals with resources.

“When I first started downtown in April 2020, [at the] Lincoln Veterans Park right there between Civic and the State Capitol, basically you couldn’t see grass. There was pretty much nothing but tents,” Moore recalled. “We’ve seen a lot of resources go into it. And I feel like we’ve seen a lot of good results, in my opinion, as a result of that.”

Accompanying the larger ranger team this year will be mental health clinicians from the WellPower mental health center. They will assist in interactions with individuals experiencing mental health crises, equipped with a list of contacts and resources immediately available.

“To be able to have our clinicians with us, and say, ‘You’re interested in resources? Here’s somebody who can give you options right now and talk to you,’ in the same conversation — it has just been a really big game changer,” Johnson said.

Johnson and Moore both acknowledge the challenges of this particular part of their jobs. It often takes several conversations just to gain the trust of individuals experiencing homelessness, they said, particularly since many have a natural suspicion of individuals wearing badges. Even still, each shared examples of breakthroughs they have personally witnessed, evidence that the “slow and steady” approach can work.

“Parks need to be safe and clean for everybody to use, whether you’re a toddler, a senior citizen, somebody experiencing homelessness, an addict, any of those things,” Johnson said. “People can use the parks, as long as park rules are being followed.”