Homeless Denverites Fight City Over Camp Sweeps

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

(CN) — A class of homeless Denverites asked a federal judge on Tuesday to bar the city from clearing encampments without notice, which they 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 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advise against clearing encampments unless adequate housing is available.

“We’ve seen how the Covid-19 pandemic has reordered our lives, we’re sitting in court today in masks because of Covid-19,” said attorney Andy McNulty, of the civil rights-focused firm Kilmer Lane and Newman in a brief opening statement.

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, McNulty explained, both Denver and the state of Colorado enacted public health orders to control the spread of the diseases. Clearing homeless encampments fans the flames of the pandemic for displaced persons, McNulty said.

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. 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.

“The conditions of some of the large encampments significantly and dangerously deteriorated to the point where Public Health and Environment was required to act,” said assistant city attorney Wendy Shea. “The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the city must continue to have the ability to enforce those rules especially during the pandemic.”

The city claimed it provided notice and offered to store belongings as required. But critics of homeless sweeps say the sweeps actually do more harm than good.

“When a camp is swept, it’s disruptive in a lot of ways, they’ve gotten used to where all the resources are near their camp, where to get food and supplies,” Jacob Wessley, director of outreach and engagement for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, told the court. “Often the things they have are all the things they have in the world, so it’s not usually a one-day process to move.”

Wesseley said he saw positive work between Denver and outreach groups through the Denver’s homeless task force, but that the sweeps sowed distrust between the government and the homeless community.

In addition to granting 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.

The hearing will continue through Wednesday. 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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