Denver Homeless Say City Breached Sweep Settlement

A new class action claims Denver violated a settlement requiring advanced notice before clearing homeless encampments. (Courthouse News photo/Nathan Solis)

DENVER (CN) — A class of people experiencing homelessness in Denver sued the city in federal court on Monday for violating a settlement agreement requiring advanced notice before clearing encampments.

Between April and August, Denver cleared at least 11 homeless camps, displacing more than 1,000 unhoused campers. Covid-19 guidelines from the Center for Disease Control advise against clearing encampments unless adequate housing is available.

Nonprofit organization Denver Homeless Out Loud first challenged the constitutionality of Denver’s urban camping ban in 2016, after several unhoused persons’ blankets and tents were seized during winter.

U.S. District Judge William Martinez signed off on a settlement between the parties in September 2019, requiring a week’s notice before breaking up homeless camps and outlining protocol for what to do with the personal belongings left behind. The Obama appointee will also preside over the new complaint.

“Despite agreeing to stop taking our homeless neighbors’ property without notice, and trashing it, in the Lyall settlement agreement, Denver continues to flagrantly violate that agreement and the Constitution,” Andy McNulty, of the civil rights-focused firm Kilmer Lane and Newman, said in a statement. “That the failure to give any notice whatsoever was purposeful, and done to prevent those who disagree with the sweeps from showing up to voice their displeasure, is even more shocking.”

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

The new lawsuit claims Denver law enforcement often planned to clear encampments days or weeks in advance but gave no advanced notice to campers.

“Denver did not provide notice because they did not want members of the public showing up to witness what was happening during the sweep at Lincoln Park, or showing any disapproval of the brutal tactics in the moment,” the 112-page complaint states. “Denver refused to provide notice for nakedly political reasons.”

The meticulous list of 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.”

Charles Davis was among those displaced from Lincoln Park, between the state Capitol and Colorado Supreme Court on July 29. According to the complaint, he was staying in the park because he feared getting Covid-19 from the shelters. He was using the bathroom at the bus station when police fenced off the park and cleared it out.

The lawsuit argues that people experiencing homelessness are less likely to contract Covid-19 while staying outdoors, as opposed to staying in crowded shelters, where one survey found 7% of residents contracted the disease between May and June.

The sweeps also impacted individual livelihoods. Tomasa Dogtrail, a disabled woman who traverses via a wheelchair lost a bag full of electronics which she repairs and sells. Named plaintiff Steve Olsen’s encampment was cleared while he was applying for work.

Clearing homeless encampments, the lawsuit said, does “nothing to ensure that homeless individuals obtain stable housing, or obtain any services that the government claims that they need, but only seek to push them into dangerous shelters or less visible parts of the city. In other words, the point is to push homeless individuals out of the public eye.”

Instead of expending resources on homeless sweeps, the lawsuit suggests providing the homeless population with hand sanitizer and access to restrooms.

Rather than “sweeps,” the city characterized its actions as “cleanups.”

“While the city has not yet seen the lawsuit, the city disagrees that it has violated the terms of the settlement agreement,” said Ryan Luby, a public information officer for Denver, in an email. “The city works very hard to connect people experiencing homelessness with services, but cannot allow unsafe and unsanitary conditions to continue as it puts everyone at risk, including those who are experiencing homelessness.”

In addition to violating an earlier settlement agreement, the lawsuit contends Denver violated the Fourth Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment rights of people experiencing homelessness.

In addition to an 82-page motion for preliminary injunction, the class asks the court to enjoin the City and County of Denver from conducting homeless sweeps during the pandemic and to provide restrooms, sanitation services, and handwashing stations.

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