The city of Denver has quietly stepped up its efforts to prevent encampments of homeless people from forming in one downtown neighborhood while also working to provide city land for a sanctioned camping site a few miles away.
City crews are now clearing unhoused people and their belongings from sidewalks and other public rights of way at least three times a week in a roughly 10-block area in the Five Points neighborhood, officials said.
“Permanent, regular cleanups are needed in this area to consistently promote the health and safety of everyone in the area, including those experiencing homelessness … ” Nancy Kuhn, spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Transportation and Infrastructure, said in an emailed statement.
The area identified by officials in late September is bounded by Broadway, Park Avenue, Welton and 20th streets. It’s dotted with signs that mark it a permanent zone for what opponents to the camping ban refer to as sweeps. The permanent cleanup zone was first reported by Westword.
Kuhn said the cleanup actions make the sidewalk accessible so people don’t have to walk in the street and help to mitigate public health risks created by trash, decomposing food, discarded needles, human waste and flammable materials such as propane and gasoline.
Unlike in most encampments cleanups, the city does not provide notice to people camping in the area seven days in advance. The notice rule was established by a federal injunction earlier this year.
“It’s an attempted end-run around the requirements of the preliminary injunction,” Andy McNulty, the attorney who filed the federal lawsuit against the city’s camping ban, said last week. “They are putting up a zone that essentially says you can’t exist here if you’re an unhoused person.”
McNulty and Assistant City Attorney Conor Farley delivered arguments in a hearing with a panel of judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit last week about the merits of the preliminary injunction. The city’s goal was to have the restrictions on its camping ban enforcement powers lifted.
Farley noted in his comments there is a process through which the city can speed up enforcement actions to a 48-hour timetable if an emergency public health risk exists in an encampment but said that is still not soon enough. He also acknowledged the public record is thin on examples of public health emergencies that require a speedier response.
A representative for the City Attorney’s Office declined to comment on the arguments which are still being considered by the judges on the panel. McNulty said the hearing was a demonstration that the city has been disingenuous about its motives for clearing encampments.
“They just want the power to do whatever they want whenever they want with no consequences and they are not happy that someone is actually holding them accountable for once,” he said.
The permanent cleanup area the city marked out in September is the second of its kind, Kuhn said. Another area, roughly outlined by Larimer, Arapahoe, 22nd and 24th streets, is also subject to regular enforcement, she said.
In her emailed statement, Kuhn encouraged people who are homeless to embrace the city services available to them rather than stay on the streets.
“Our shelters have capacity; they are open 24/7, many do not require sobriety, they are safe and clean, and provide essential services to exit homelessness, including case management and rehousing,” she wrote.
Kuhn emailed The Denver Post her statement before a Denver Rescue Mission employee was fatally stabbed at the organization’s shelter for men at 4600 E. 48th Ave. Saturday night.
The potential for violent episodes is just one thing that can keep unhoused people from using the city’s shelter network. Cathy Alderman, chief public policy officer for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, noted that sleeping in a large, open room with other people is not ideal for everyone and the environment can be triggering for people struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder.
The coalition has offices in the permanent cleanup area in Five Points. The enforcement doesn’t necessarily mean there are fewer people on the street, but that those people who would otherwise have been near the coalition offices and the offices of other service providers in the area are now more spread out.
“We don’t support the enforcement of the camping ban. We think it’s wildly unproductive,” Alderman said, “but at the same time encampments do sometimes bring safety issues with them.”
The city’s crackdown on camping in that corner of Five Points comes at a time when city officials also shepherding through approval for a sanctioned homeless camping site, known as a “safe outdoor space,” on the east Denver campus of the city’s department of human services.
The site, at 3815 Steele St. in the Clayton neighborhood, will be the first safe outdoor space on a city-owned property when it opens next month. The site will replace another space on the campus of a Park Hill church that is set to close at the end of the year.
The Clayton space will have 41 tents equipped with electricity and capable of hosting up to 50 people, according to the Colorado Village Collaborative, the nonprofit the city has contracted to operate the sites. The city will lease the land to the collaborative for $10 for the first year, with two six-month extension options.
The City Council voted to approve the lease agreement on Monday night. Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer, who represents District 5 on the city’s east side, was the lone no vote. She has consistently opposed the city spending any money on safe outdoor spaces.
The site operators are optimistic about what the Clayton site means for the future of their model.
“I am excited to see the city stepping up in that way and making public land available for that purpose,” Cole Chandler, Colorado Village Collaborative’s executive director, said. “We think that’s indicative of really the public conversation around these sites shifting.”
The nonprofit was awarded an $899,000 contract to operate the improved camping sites this year and as of earlier this month had served more than 120 households that were previously unsheltered and living on the streets, Chandler said.
Colorado Village Collaborative opened a safe site near Denver Health Medical Center in the city’s Lincoln Park neighborhood today, Chandler said. By the end of the year, the nonprofit will have three sites with aims to open a fourth in early 2022. The city and the organization are negotiating a contract for next year that could further expand the network.
In a committee hearing about the Clayton site earlier this month, City Councilman Chris Hinds noted that his District 10 hosted the first two temporary safe outdoor spaces this year and neighbors went from sending him emails opposing them to embracing them as safer alternatives to encampments.
“This is a transformative model,” he said. “It has had an incredible amount of success.”
November’s election results also give Chandler hope, he said. Not only did voters reject Initiated Ordinance 303, which would have made the camping ban more strict, they also supported preserving the group living amendment intended to keep housing costs down in the city.
Denver’s Department of Housing Stability recently earned council approval for its 5-year strategic plan and projects having more than $270.6 million to spend next year including $40.9 million from the homelessness resolution fund voters approved in 2020. Almost 50% of that budget is earmarked for homelessness resolution efforts.
Alderman said that providing more safe outdoor spaces is a positive step, providing an alternative between camping ban enforcement and shelters. But, like the existing shelter system, those are only short-term solutions.
“The city is making investments in housing and homeless at a scale that it never has before and that is a good thing,” Alderman said. “Unfortunately, we are in a pretty big crisis so it’s going to take a while for those dollars to have the intended impact.”
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