Just as city officials were hearing Wednesday morning that most people living on Denver’s streets don’t go very far after a sweep, some residents of the Park Hill neighborhood sued the city over another of its tactics — safe outdoor spaces.
Representatives of Denver Homeless Out Loud, a local nonprofit that advocates for the homeless, presented a survey of 150 people experiencing homelessness to the City Council’s Safety, Housing, Education & Homelessness Committee.
The respondents who were surveyed between April and August 2020 said that when the city clears out illegal encampments, most people eventually wind up back on the same block.
Denver Homeless Out Loud spokeswoman Terese Howard said people told the organization that sweeps — called large-scale cleanups by city officials — fail to connect people to the housing they seek and also lead to lost or confiscated property, ultimately setting the homeless back even further.
“They are counterproductive, they are harmful.” Howard told the committee.
Safe outdoor spaces have been an alternative to the sweeps and came about during the pandemic. Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration has said they’d like to add more than the two that are in Denver.
But Wednesday’s lawsuit alleges that Denver’s zoning administrator allowed the safe outdoor spaces “without public notice, public hearings or the involvement of the City Council or the appointed Denver Zoning Board,” according to a news release from attorney Dan Burrows, who is representing the local nonprofit called Denver Deserves Better.
The lawsuit, which was filed in Denver District Court and names the city and its zoning board as defendants, asks the judge to void the city’s decision allowing the encampments.
A representative for the Denver city attorney’s office declined to comment on the pending lawsuit.
A closer look at survey, recommendations
Safe outdoors spaces were one of the options Howard suggested to the city instead of sweeps, which local and national experts on health and homelessness have said are costly and ineffective. But Hancock has stood behind the controversial practice and ramped up the number of sweeps in recent months once vaccinations became more widespread — coinciding with the weeks ahead of the MLB All-Star Game.
Of the 150 people who answered the survey’s questions, results show:
- 89.3% had experienced a sweep or lost their property to city officials during one.
- 29.3% reported seeing prior notice to a sweep.
- 54.5% never found a legal place to stay after a sweep.
- 70.4% returned to the location from which they had been swept.
- 3.7% were able to retrieve their property which had been placed in storage after a sweep.
The most effective option for those living on the streets would be for city officials to stop the sweeps entirely, Howard said. She recommended alternatives to better help the homeless and transition them into permanent housing: stopping sweeps during inclement weather, stopping police from blocking off sweeps with tape or fencing and using clearer language in notices of sweeps to indicate that campers will be forced to move and their property could be confiscated or thrown away.
But the council doesn’t have the authority to enact most, or all, of the recommendations, Councilwoman Robin Kniech said during the meeting. Instead, Hancock’s administration is the sole body that can adopt them, not the council, and she noted several recommendations appear to be “fundamentally in conflict” with the mayor’s strategies and unlikely to happen.
Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer asked why so many people on the streets appear to refuse the services offered by city officials during the sweeps. Ana Cornelius, also of Denver Homeless Out Loud, responded that because the services aren’t holistic.
On the rare occasions she said housing is offered, it’s temporary and only comes at the cost of leaving behind a dog, losing touch with caregivers or leaving behind tents and other necessary property.
“Do I give up my caregiver in order to get a roof over my head for three days?” Cornelius asked. “And then they’re out on the street with no survival gear and then we have a bigger problem on the back end.”
Hancock spokesman Mike Strott said city officials remain focused on connecting people in encampments with services, shelter and housing.
“Unsanctioned encampments pose a health and safety risk to those living in them and those living around them,” Strott said. “The mayor has been clear that they cannot persist when better alternatives remain available.”
Strott agreed with Kneich about recommendations that run against the city’s policy on encampments — meaning they won’t be considered — while others will be discussed with city agencies in charge of the sweeps.
Kniech and Councilwoman Amanda Sandoval pledged to continue to listen and help move the conversation forward.
“We’ve been stuck for a long time,” Kniech said.
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