Denver Defends Decision to Clear Homeless Camps in Pandemic

Homeless people in a park in downtown Denver. (Courthouse News photo / Chris Marshall)

(CN) — Denver health officials explained in federal court on Wednesday why they shirked Covid-19 guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and cleared homeless encampments without notice — a move a class of Denverites experiencing homelessness say violates a settlement agreement.

According to the lawsuit filed Oct. 5, Denver cleared at least 11 homeless camps between April and August, displacing more than 1,000 unhoused citizens. Covid-19 guidelines from the CDC advise against clearing encampments unless adequate housing is available.

“We always consider CDC guidance, but we don’t always follow it,” Bill Burman, Denver’s public health director, told the court. “These are guidelines, they are not mandates.”

Burman said Denver also decided against following an earlier CDC guidance that would have resulted in quarantining too many healthcare workers to maintain the system.

As of May, the CDC recommends “if individual housing options are not available, allow people who are living unsheltered or in encampments to remain where they are. Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.”

Nonprofit organization Denver Homeless Out Loud first challenged the constitutionality of Denver’s urban camping ban in 2016, after several blankets and tents were seized during winter. The city settled with the group in February 2019, agreeing to give advance notice of sweeps and provide resources like storage for those displaced.

As of January 2020, the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative counted 4,171 people experiencing homelessness in the city, with 996 living outside of shelters.

According to the complaint, items destroyed by Denver law enforcement include “belongings necessary for survival outside, including tents, blankets, shades, umbrellas, tarps, clothing, and sleeping bags,” as well as “irreplaceable belongings, including photographs, family heirlooms (such as jewelry), letters, and notes,” and “plaintiffs’ only means of transportation, including bicycles, skateboards, and shoes.”

Denver officials characterized the sweeps as “cleanups” of unsanitary areas. Denver Director of Public Health Inspections Division Danica Lee listed shigella, a common cause of bacterial gastroenteritis, as well as hepatitis A as diseases many people living on the streets are exposed to.

Attorney Andy McNulty who represents organization Denver Homeless Outloud and the displaced plaintiffs questioned Lee on whether clearing encampments solved any of the health issues faced by people experiencing homelessness.

When Lee explained that clearing camps presents opportunities to get services to people, McNulty quipped, “so you coerce people into taking advantage of services?”

Lee also defended her decision not to post notice ahead of clearing some of the encampments.

“It wasn’t the protesting that was the problem, it was people aggressively interfering with the clearing and interfering with people who were trying to pack up their belongings,” Lee explained.

Bob McDonald, executive director for Denver Department of Public Health and Environment told assistant city attorney Wendy Shea that the city followed the CDC guideline for homeless encampments during the first two months of the pandemic.

During that time, McDonald said, “I heard through my roll in the Emergency Operations Center about the conditions in the encampments, and when I was able to view them, I saw some of the most advanced conditions of my career.”

While he approved the clearing of Lincoln Park across from the state capitol, McDonald said he has also allowed other encampments to remain in place.

“Without the authority to clear encampments, our hands would be significantly tied,” McDonald testified. “Over the years I can think of many times when that authority was needed, because public health is unpredictable and as a public health department, we need that flexibility and we use great discretion with that.”

In Tuesday’s hearing, several individuals who were displaced in the homeless sweeps described the impact on their lives.

“I was really tore up, I went from being able to live to just no luck at all, I didn’t have a thing left after that, it was really rough,” said Steve Olsen, who lost all of his personal effects when the South Platte River was cleared.

In addition to granting a preliminary injunction, the class asks the court to bar Denver from conducting homeless sweeps during the pandemic and to provide restrooms, sanitation services and handwashing stations.

This was the second of three hearings on the injunction. U.S. District Judge William Martinez, a Barack Obama appointee, is presiding over the case but did not indicate how he will rule.

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