When Jonathan Hill became a Denver Parks & Recreation (DPR) ranger in 2015, he was excited about working outdoors instead of behind a desk. But he was ill-prepared for at least one of the realities of the job: responding to overdoses in the green spaces he patrolled. “All I could do was perform rescue breaths and wait for the paramedics to arrive,” Hill says. “It was agonizing.”

In the years since Hill joined, DPR has improved rangers’ training so they feel more prepared to confront America’s opioid epidemic. “Someone may decline services a thousand times over,” says Joshua Glover, park ranger supervisor for DPR’s downtown district, an area that includes Civic Center, Sunken Gardens, and Lincoln parks. “Because the rangers have a good relationship with the people who hang out in the park, we hope eventually they might get through.” Now, many nonprofit leaders fear that trust may crumble under the strain of Denver’s homeless sweeps, as the city increasingly recruits rangers to help clear encampments. “We definitely wish [rangers] weren’t involved with sweeps at all,” says Lisa Raville, executive director of the nonprofit Harm Reduction Action Center, which works to lower the negative impacts of drug abuse.

Although the Denver Department of Public Health & Environment (DDPHE) doesn’t specifically track drug use in public parks, its records show that in 2019, eight percent of the city’s 213 overdose deaths occurred outdoors. Those experiencing homelessness are especially likely to use in parks, Raville says, adding, “Rangers would come to me thirsting for knowledge about how to help.” DPR has responded by equipping rangers with naloxone, a drug better known as Narcan, which counteracts overdoses; providing secure needle and syringe disposal containers; and teaching rangers in the downtown district how to direct people struggling with substance abuse to service providers.

The resulting bonds with people struggling with homelessness and addiction have made rangers helpful resources during encampment cleanups in 2020, a year that’s brought fierce debate around performing sweeps during a pandemic. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises against them if safe, alternative housing isn’t available; the city of Denver and DDPHE say camps pose a public health risk due to high rates of hepatitis A and bacterial infections.) In addition to handing out notices of removal of abandoned property, rangers also have had to intervene alongside police when people resist moving or when protesters interrupt the sweeps. “Imagine that you’d begun to think of a certain ranger as a good guy, someone who might be able to help you,” says Terese Howard, an organizer with nonprofit Denver Homeless Out Loud. “And then you see him throwing someone’s stuff out during a sweep.”

At first, Hill shared Howard’s concern. So far, though, he believes that fear has been unfounded. “I think people in the tent camps appreciate seeing a familiar face helping them through the process,” Hill says. And while dispersing camps isn’t what drew Hill to become a ranger in the first place, it’s another unexpected addition to an unpredictable job—just like treating overdose victims. “Being a city park ranger isn’t all campfire stories and roasting marshmallows,” he says. “We’re putting our best foot forward.”

This article was originally published in 5280 November 2020.
Angela Ufheil
Angela Ufheil
Angela Ufheil is a Denver-based journalist and 5280's former digital senior associate editor.