By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
Pity the poor Denver City Council members who get caught napping after Monday night's meeting.
On Tuesday, May 2, "the City will begin enforcing ordinances that prohibit trespassing, including sleeping overnight, at any City and County Building," according to an April 20 memo from the Department of Human Services. "Notices describing this policy will be posted this week at City and County Buildings. Similar notices will be distributed to shelters, day shelters, meal sites and other service providers."
This past Tuesday, though, a week before the policy was to go into effect, those notices had yet to be posted outside the Denver City and County Building, the massive structure whose interior houses the mayor's office, city council, Denver courts and assorted city departments, and whose exterior has become ground zero in the battle between the home team and the homeless. But while no eviction notices are posted, that exterior shows signs of all-too-human habitation.
"I have an office under a grate," says buildings manager John Hall. "They've urinated, defecated; they've left needles."
And next week, they're out of there. But to where?
As long as I have lived in Denver -- half of my life now -- the homeless have been part of the landscape. Back in the late '70s, of course, they weren't known as "homeless." They were bums, pure and simple, many of whom had ridden into town on the freight trains that passed through the Platte Valley. They'd hop off and head down Cherry Creek or across the tracks to what passed as civilization; we often found transients grooming inside the shared bathroom at our first office at 15th and Market streets. As that neighborhood spruced up and got itself a fancy new name -- LoDo -- and lofts and restaurants, the bums moved further north. So did we. One morning about a decade ago, as we ventured from our office at 18th and Wynkoop over to 21st and Larimer for a date with some greasy tacos, we had to step over a group of gentlemen who'd overindulged. One roused himself to take a look at the passing parade, then muttered, "The British are coming, the British are coming." But that neighborhood soon got a fancy new name, too -- the Ballpark Neighborhood -- with its own share of restaurants and lofts and sports bars (whose beer-sodden customers are far less tidy in the alleys than the bums were). Today "civilization" stretches all the way across the Platte Valley and beyond; the thirteen units of "affordable housing" going into the Riverfront Project require a household income of no more than $66,000 and sell for $180,000 each (but then, developer East West Partners is based in Vail, where $180,000 is truly affordable). But even if all the new residents of LoDo and the Ballpark Neighborhood and the Platte Valley were willing to rub elbows with the unofficial neighbors who were there long before them, the murders last fall of seven transients, six of them still unsolved, have made the homeless a truly endangered species in the Platte Valley.
And so when we moved south to the Golden Triangle late last year, we found that the homeless had moved right along with us. They brought along their spirits -- both high ("A few French fries short of a Happy Meal," read the sign one fellow was waving on Colfax this week) and alcoholic (the bottles in the parking lot aren't all mine) -- as well as the rest of their detritus. They're as much a part of the urban landscape as all of those "loft for sale" signs, but they're not nearly as attractive to developers.
Or city officials, if the two can be separated.
Throughout the winter, the homeless took turns sleeping on manhole covers, on the sixteen grates around the City and County Building, and occasionally even on public-building roofs ("They used grappling hooks," says Hall); they urinated through the fences and used newspaper boxes for lockers. The mess had gotten so bad that on March 9, John Parvensky, president of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, powwowed with assorted city officials. The city wanted the homeless gone; Parvensky wanted a safe, alternative place for them. "This situation is a common, but highly visible, result of the affordable housing crisis in Denver today," Parvensky wrote in a letter summarizing the meeting. "It also is a natural result of the City's prior efforts to prevent homeless persons from sleeping along Cherry Creek and South Platte River." The solution, he suggested, was to develop both short- and long-term strategies, including a public hygiene center, a 24-hour crisis drop-in center, a year-round women's shelter, an expanded shelter for families (short-term) and a long-term plan "to replace the thousands of low-cost housing lost in Downtown and Central Denver during the past two decades."
"I was disappointed in your response," Mayor Wellington Webb wrote in his March 24 reply to Parvensky (whose name he misspelled). "It was the City's hope that by identifying resources that would be made available to the persons urinating and defecating into the utility grates of the City and County Building that you would be a partner in the resolution of this matter." And so the city would resolve it with a much shorter-term strategy.