While Denver Homeless Out Loud awaits its December 15th court hearing for a lawsuit they recently filed against the city of Denver, DDPHE and Denver police are carrying on with what they call “cleanups,” widely known as homeless “sweeps.”
In the early hours of Monday November 30th, around 300 unhoused residents at Arkins Court were cleared out by DDPHE (Denver Department of Public Health and Environment) without any instruction of where they could move (except for shelters which, residents said, are filled to capacity, or have bed bugs—more on that later). Many residents of the camp shared that they moved to this camp after being swept from other areas in the city because police told them it would be a safe place for them to go. Police deployed pepper spray and pepper balls on protesters and arrested four people, three of them unhoused residents. Denver has been funding these sweeps for eight years since the urban camping ban was placed, performing a few sweeps per week on average.
This issue is part of an ongoing saga between the houseless community and the city government that began with the placement of an urban camping ban in 2012. The repeal of Denver’s urban camping ban failed in the municipal election of May 2019, but in September 2019 a federal judge approved a settlement between the two parties, ruling that houseless residents should be notified by city officials at least 48 hours prior to a planned “cleanup” or sweep. The current lawsuit claims that this settlement has been violated by the city. Per the lawsuit: “Over the past year, and in a blatant effort to skirt a settlement agreement entered into between Denver and a class of its homeless population, Denver officials have repeatedly showed up at homeless encampments without notice, flatly told homeless residents to move along (‘to where?’ is the obvious question to this nonsensical command), and seized their property (often discarding it).”
The suit also seeks to end the sweeps, at least during the pandemic, in accordance with CDC guidelines which have advised against the sweeps because of the high risk of virus infection they pose.
In December 2019, a Denver County judge ruled that the urban camping ban is unconstitutional. So why are the sweeps continuing?
The city appealed the ruling, and is awaiting a hearing. In the meantime, there is nothing in place to prevent them from sweeping encampments.
This time around, residents were pushed out of the encampment due to a zoning change proposal which was posted about in a notice on a fence near the Arkins encampment. As the notice explains, Tryba Architects seeks to change the zoning at Arkins Court and three other locations in Denver to allow “mixed use development between 110 and 250 feet in height,” in other words, more high-rise buildings.
The sweeps tend to gather protesters and supporters of the homeless population (some are both) who offer moving supplies, refreshments, and a helping hand in moving their camps. On the morning of the Arkins sweep, dozens of people showed up with Uhaul trucks as well as the usual supplies, including a pop-up table with coffee, hot chocolate, pastries, sandwiches, fruit, and more.
One supporter, Matilda March, who showed up in her van (which she lives in) to help people move their belongings, said she shows up to help regularly because “the cops don’t really give (them) a lot of time to move people out.”
“I haven’t even been able to do a load yet today. I’ve been here since 5 am and it’s 9:30 and I haven’t been able to move anyone because they wouldn’t let me in. Earlier, when they were putting up the fencing, I had my van outside the fence and I said, ‘Hey, I have someone on this corner that I already have planned to pick up their stuff and help them move, can I get through there?’ They told me I could when the fence was up. The fence was up by 7:30, it’s been two hours and they still haven’t let me through to even contact this person, communicate with them and let them know I’m here. They might let me later, but I’m already helping another person now,” March said.
March shared that there were supporters of houseless residents at the camp overnight before the sweep. “There were a lot of people here who got to know (the camp residents) better and who got to understand that the people here really did want to stay. By about 5 o’clock the cops started setting up fencing, and we had a line of about 20 people that they were pushing back while trying to set up the fence, because the residents here wanted to stand their ground. This is the place cops have been telling people to come when they get swept from other locations.” March sat parked outside the gated fencing, as a houseless resident carried their belongings from inside the encampment through the gate to her van.
“They (the police) won’t let me into the gated area to help get their stuff so they don’t have to push it all the way over here,” she said.
One woman, Samantha Hudson, who lived at the camp with her husband and two children, complained that her baby wipes, diapers, children’s clothing, and space heater were taken in the dump truck while she left the area to look for a different camp to move to.
“I asked the officers how long I had left, they said an hour to an hour and a half. How far was I going, I said about ten, twenty minutes away. I was gone not even 45 minutes when I came back to everything already put in a pile with everybody else’s belongings smashed on top. It’s in the back of their dump trucks. Officers knew, they said it was OK. This is getting ridiculous, just help us instead of putting up down… I’ve been asking for help, instead of seeing how much me and my husband have turned our lives around and changed, they don’t want to give us that chance… When we got to this spot, me and my husband picked up all (those) dirty needles.. Swept it...We cleaned the whole area. There were no hazardous materials anywhere near my belongings at all,” Hudson said.
When asked where they are supposed to go, Hudson said, “Everybody so far is in a parking lot on Stout Street downtown, but in a couple days they’ll be saying, ‘Go somewhere else, go somewhere else.’ It’s a constant thing. They got all this open property doing nothing but sitting here, for what? I understand some people are dirty. Give us more garbage cans, give us more bathroom facilities. I want the help, I need the help.”
“The majority of us get up and go to work. My kids spend 12, 15 hours in the car with me every day selling scrap metal and pallets just so we can make a living for our kids to buy diapers and wipes and make sure our kids can have a happy meal. They threw away everything that we struggled so hard to even get.”
Hudson said she chose to move into the encampment a few months ago when she could not afford a rent payment and did not want an eviction on her record, because it would ruin her chances of finding a new place to sign a lease. She was a participant in the CWEE (Center for Work Education and Employment) program and aimed to find HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) work before the pandemic caused her program to end.
Another resident of the camp, Garen Zamba, said he was in the process of moving into the Salvation Army Crossroads Center when he discovered there were bed bugs in the shelter. He bought bed bug spray to treat the area, but the building manager would not let him clear out the space long enough to use the spray. So he chose to stay at the encampment instead.
“I knew I was going to be infested, so I chose to be outside,” he said.
Zamba continued, “Other shelters are at full capacity right now. In order to be admitted into the shelter, you have to go through a lottery process. The shelters don’t have the means necessary in order to take care of everybody’s problem. Or maybe they do have the means, but they’re not utilizing it appropriately. The government should have city based camps or some portion of the land on vacated spaces where people can be lodged.”
Ana Cornelius, organizer with DHOL and former One-home Families Coordinator at Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, said that she and other DHOL organizers are documenting property damage and taking residents’ contact information to stay in touch and help them out. She also said they ask at every sweep where people are supposed to go.
“We ask where are people supposed to go, and they just say, ‘Not here.’”
“The city wrote the CDC to find out how they could get around their guidelines. In November, Governor Polis put out a new COVID order that states that he both authorizes and urges government entities to find shelter for people that are not congregate sheltering. Because of COVID, you need to find ways to house people that are not congregate settings. So when they're telling people, ‘We’re offering you shelter,’ they’re actually offering them COVID. Denver Health just did a study and they showed that staying in camps, the rate of COVID was something like .3 percent, and it was very high for shelters. It would’ve been so much easier and much more cost effective to put regular trash service and porta-potties and hand-washing stations here, and we could’ve kept this whole population safe.”
Cornelius said that DHOL has asked for meetings with DDPHE “numerous times and they refuse to give (them) one. We tried to provide porta-potties and then there was a permitting issue so we asked for the permit process and I was told by the permitting office that there is no permitting process for what we were trying to do, and then Charlotte Pitt said she would get back to us and we’ve been waiting nine months.” Pitt is Manager of Solid Waste Management for the City & County of Denver. An attempt was made to contact Pitt and she has yet to reply.
A policeman at the scene addressed the CDC guidance by saying, “It changes every day.”
On December 3rd, DHOL sent out an email announcing three more sweeps scheduled for next week.
Per DHOL’S email regarding the hearing: “There will be a call-in number where the public can listen to the hearing. Stay tuned for this number. We will also be holding a rally and press conference prior to the hearings at 8am outside the Alfred J. Arraj United States Courthouse (901 19th St - 20th and Champa) with safe distancing measures in place.” DHOL has since provided the call-in number.
This story is developing and will be updated periodically.
About the Author:
My name is Maddy. I am a journalist, writer, and thinker based in Colorado where I work as a stringer for a small-town newspaper and have some odd jobs on the side. I am a member of the Democratic Socialist of America and am interested in bringing a lens of intersectionality to journalism and "pushing the envelope" to make people think critically about social issues. I love animals, music, food, creative writing, and the outdoors. She/her.