Denver Can Sweep the Homeless – but It Can't Sweep Away the Evidence

Early on the morning of July 13, police officers arrived en masse at Confluence Park, as expected — only there were a lot more of them than seemed necessary. This was the moment that members of the advocacy group Denver Homeless Out Loud were waiting for; they wanted to document one of Denver’s controversial homeless sweeps by streaming live video of the event on Facebook.

They knew it was coming. Earlier in the week, DHOL had received a tip from an informant who works for the city government that a major sweep operation was scheduled for the early hours of July 13. DHOL had even promoted its live coverage ahead of time by posting on its Facebook page: 

As it turned out, the activists made contact with officers closer to 1 a.m. Nevertheless, a DHOL activist named Robert Hudson was ready to capture the police activity with his cell-phone camera.

“So it’s currently about one o’clock in the morning here at Confluence Park. There are over twenty cops here,” he began.

In the video, Hudson took viewers up and down the sidewalk near the intersection of 15th and Little Raven streets, documenting the police presence while a number of homeless individuals were ticketed for park curfew violations or arrested for outstanding warrants. The DPD officers appeared to be rather subdued, but Hudson and other DHOL members were not, making loud protestations and pressing the officers for explanations of city ordinances.

“We got a mixture of cops from District One, District Two, District Six, a motorcycle unit, a bicycle unit — this shit is crazy!” exclaimed Hudson, offering the first hint of the unusual size and coordination of the operation.

He and other DHOL activists had another reason to worry: Beyond the handful of individuals sleeping at Confluence Park, they were concerned about a large and more established encampment of about twenty individuals along the South Platte River, near the former Denargo Market site, on Arkins Court.
At one point, DHOL activist Ray Lyall overheard an officer mention that the police were going to head over to that area.

“We need someone with a camera there!” Lyall was heard saying in the background of the live stream.

That’s when he and a few others from DHOL relocated to the Arkins Court encampments. Once there, they waited for police until 4:30 a.m., at which point they decided to leave and get some sleep. They figured that the encampment would be undisturbed for at least another 24 hours.

They were wrong.

What the members of Denver Homeless Out Loud didn’t know was that the City of Denver had actually planned two sweeps to take place during the early hours of July 13. The first operation, code-named “Night Crawler,” included the police activity that DHOL witnessed at Confluence Park, as well as a sweep of the Cherry Creek bike path and the 16th Street Mall that focused on campers and suspected drug users.

But there was a second operation, called “River Dance,” that began at 5 a.m. and was a coordinated effort of the Denver Police Department, the Department of Public Works and Denver Parks and Recreation to clean up trash and dismantle any remaining homeless encampments along Cherry Creek and the South Platte River.

Just two hours after DHOL’s members left the site of the Arkins Court encampments, roughly twenty individuals living there were displaced as part of Operation River Dance. DHOL later learned through anecdotal accounts that homeless individuals’ personal property had been thrown away or destroyed without due process or an explanation as to how to retrieve their belongings.

Now additional information has come to light. Documents obtained by the ACLU of Colorado via the Colorado Open Records Act and shared with Westword offer a deeper look at the sweeps, going beyond the 36 citations issued on July 13 that had already been reported by local media outlets. Among the documents are e-mails and operation plans that offer insight into the process by which major sweep operations in Denver are planned and executed, as well as the continual pressure the city faces from developers, private interests and 3-1-1 callers to crack down on homeless encampments.

Subsequent followups by Westword with various city departments confirm that the unauthorized-camping ordinance — or “urban-camping ban,” as it’s better known — was utilized during the July 13 sweep, and that, despite numerous claims of personal-property destruction, the Denver city government has no documentation of any property belonging to homeless individuals being destroyed or confiscated by city personnel, raising questions about the protocols used (or not) during the sweep.

Finally, the documents suggest that Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration carried out this “sweep” (a term that the city avoids using in public but uses frequently in its internal communications) unilaterally, without first consulting the majority of Denver’s homeless-service providers, the mayor’s own Commission on Homelessness, or most members of the Denver City Council — leaving many to wonder why they were left in the dark about such a significant operation.

According to e-mails obtained through the open-records request, it appears that planning for the July 13 actions began in earnest with a multi-agency meeting on June 26 to discuss “Operation River Dance #3.”

The “#3” refers to the fact that the city also conducted River Dance operations in 2014 and 2015, as part of the Department of Parks and Recreation’s ongoing effort to keep parkland areas around the Platte River and Cherry Creek clean. Indeed, anyone who has seen city employees or volunteer crews picking up trash around Confluence Park knows and appreciates that cleanups are a necessary part of Parks and Rec’s mission.

But it appears that this year’s River Dance anticipated increased contact with homeless individuals from the get-go. Ever since the city uprooted homeless encampments along Park Avenue and Lawrence Street in early March, the banks of the Platte and Cherry Creek have been popular camping locations for homeless individuals who elect not to check into Denver’s homeless shelters (oftentimes for personal reasons such as health and safety concerns).

E-mails dating back to June 23 reveal that law enforcement was in the driver’s seat for this year’s operation; DPD Homeless Outreach Team officer Ligeia Craven was tasked with coordinating the initial planning meeting on June 26.

“I am being informed that the City would like to host another ‘Operation River Dance,’” she wrote in a June 23 e-mail to members of various city departments.

It is unclear who, exactly, from the “City” first put Craven in charge of organizing the operation, but on June 27, the day after the planning meeting, multiple e-mails were sent to the mayor’s deputy chief of staff, Evan Dreyer, bringing attention to encampments along Arkins Court. Afterward, e-mails show that Dreyer acted as the mayor’s liaison throughout conversations around both Night Crawler and River Dance.

Among the messages that Dreyer responded to on June 27 was a forwarded e-mail from Eric Knopinski of Parks and Recreation, who wrote:

The e-mail includes a number of photos of the encampments taken by Knopinski. Dreyer responded with this message to various police, Public Works and Parks and Recreation personnel:

“Thanks. That’s just blatant.”

Even though the Arkins Court encampments were not on park land, from that point on they were included as a target of the River Dance operation. By June 28, DPD officer Steven Hammack was tasked with leading a squad to address the encampments; Custom Environmental Services is mentioned in e-mails as being able to provide dump trucks. Custom Environmental is the same company that was used by the city during the March 8 sweep of Park Avenue; a CBS4 investigation later revealed that the company was paid for its services with funds that had been donated to help the homeless. Mayor Hancock reimbursed the donations and characterized the entire episode as an “administrative snafu.”

The encampments along Arkins Court were obvious enough to draw attention from private citizens. Documents show that developer Kyle Zeppelin, Greenway Foundation Executive Director Jeff Shoemaker and various 3-1-1 callers pressured the city to move in on them.

For example, on July 12, the day before the sweep, Zeppelin, whose development company owns more than a million square feet of land in RiNo and has constructed multiple projects including the TAXI development, wrote to Shoemaker and City Councilman Jolon Clark:

In response, Shoemaker, whose nonprofit Greenway Foundation aims to clean, promote and maintain the South Platte River, wrote an e-mail that looped in Dreyer, the Denver Police Department and Parks and Recreation:

Responding to Westword’s request for comment, Shoemaker said that the e-mail came from his concern for the well-being of the homeless along the river, the environmental integrity of the river, and for the personal safety of recreational users of the greenway.

Planning for the sweep, including the dismantling of the Arkins Court encampments, was largely concluded by the time Shoemaker contacted city officials.

In fact, the July 13 operation date for the sweep was settled on after a Parks and Rec field superintendent noted in an e-mail that “trail usage is a lot higher on [weekends], so with as many people as we are going to have out there, it makes sense for us to work on a Wednesday.” This was also a suitable date to accommodate a “narcotic operation” by Denver police — later revealed as Night Crawler — that would precede River Dance.

Once the formal date was in place, more detailed execution plans, as well as a targeted PR effort, kicked into gear. In keeping with the tradition of previous cleanups, a flier was distributed to select neighbors around the Platte River soliciting volunteers and promising a celebratory barbecue to follow.

“Join Lt. Kevin Endling from DPD at the top of the hill in Commons Park for a morning of river clean-up,” the flier read. “Denver Parks will provide bags. You provide heavy work gloves.”

Meanwhile, a police operations plan for the River Dance portion of the sweep, titled “3rd Annual Operation River Dance Clean-up Celebration,” was distributed to participating officers.

The mission, as stated in the plan, was threefold:

“1. To protect life and safeguard property.

“2.To take law enforcement action when it is appropriate and in the public interest.

“3. To improve quality of life conditions for those who lawfully use this public space.”

In order to fulfill their objectives, the officers’ first instructions were to carry out a “sweep of Platte River and Cherry Creek Bike Path.”

However, one concerning aspect of the plan, especially given its stated emphasis on safeguarding property, is that there is no mention of how to handle homeless individuals’ belongings, or what protocols should be used when cleaning up an encampment. In fact, nowhere in any of the documents requested by the ACLU or in subsequent requests by Westword is there any mention of what to do with homeless people’s property.

This became problematic in the aftermath of the sweep, because soon after July 13, stories arose suggesting that more than a few homeless individuals had had their items trashed during the sweep — a potential violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment protection against unlawful searches and seizures.

At 3:30 p.m. on July 13, Westword received a call from Brad Evans, founder of the Denver Cruiser Ride and Denver Fugly, informing the paper that the Arkins Court encampments had disappeared. This was the first that most observers, including the members of Denver Homeless Out Loud, knew about the sweep extending to that part of the Platte River.

Therese Howard, one of the principal activists of DHOL, remembers racing down to the area as soon as she learned the news. She couldn’t believe that her organization had missed its chance to document the most important part of the sweep, but she immediately set about searching for eyewitnesses who were at the scene when the police had arrived at 6:30 that morning.

“They were really scattered after that sweep,” Howard says of the campers, which required her and other DHOL members to return to the area every few days and search hidden locations along the Platte River before they were able to locate a number of individuals who could recount what happened.

One of the men Howard located about a week after the sweep agreed to let her record his voice and post a video to YouTube, though he asked not to be pictured or identified by name. The resulting video is choppy, with the camera pointed toward the Platte, but the man’s voice is audible in the background.

“They took our homes.... They took everything we own and possess without giving the proper opportunity to move it,” the man begins.

He claims to have been below Arkins Court, in an encampment on the banks of the Platte, on the morning of the sweep; he says that he and others camping there did not receive any warning that police officers, park rangers or cleanup crews were on their way. Among the things that he alleges were taken from him were a canopy, a grill, a couple of tents folded up in tarps, items of clothing, charging devices and a radio.

“The only thing I was able to save was my backpack with things in it, my skateboard and my bike,” he says. “When the rangers came, they said, ‘You need to move all your stuff now or it’s going in the trash.’

“They didn’t give us enough time,” he continues, adding that his personal items were discarded while he was carrying his other belongings up to the road.

Toward the end of the video, Howard asks the man why he doesn’t stay in a homeless shelter instead of camping.

“You have a better chance of catching an infection in [a shelter] than out here,” the man responds. “We’re trying to be out of people’s way being out here.”

In the two months since the July 13 sweep, Howard says that DHOL has been able to reach about a dozen homeless people who were swept by the city that morning, seven of whom claim to have had at least one personal item discarded by the city, including tents, bicycles, tarps and blankets.

Westword cannot independently verify these claims, but did reach out to various city departments involved in the July 13 sweep for more information. All questions were routed to Julie Smith, a spokeswoman with Denver Human Services, despite the fact that that department was not involved in River Dance or Night Crawler.

According to Smith, the city did arrange to have dump trucks on the scene, individuals were contacted “in relation to the city ordinance D.M.R.C. 38-86.2” (the urban-camping ban), and some items from former encampments were thrown away. But she also says that “people...were asked multiple times to remove their belongings, informed on each occasion that the area was scheduled for cleanup, and told that any items left behind would be considered abandoned. Most people took their belongings. The remaining abandoned property was disposed of.”

DHOL’s Howard directly refutes this. “All I can say is that everyone I have talked with said they were given no time to gather all their things — only enough time to get a couple things before the crews started trashing things. And when they asked to get their friends’ stuff [for them], they were told they could not.”

Without independent evidence, it’s difficult to say with certainty what happened. But here is what’s known: When asked what happens to items that are considered “abandoned,” Smith says that the location of the items determines which protocol is used. Parks and Rec has rules for dealing with items on park land; since the encampments along Arkins Court do not fall into that category, the Public Works “encumbrance removal” ordinance would be the governing protocol.

In April, documents obtained by the ACLU revealed that the city spent two months revising its public encumbrance removal procedure — which dictates that the city must post written notices 24 hours in advance of a cleanup, as well as document any and all items taken during such operations and make them available for retrieval for at least thirty days afterward — ahead of the sweeps on March 8 and 9.

Following those sweeps, however, this procedure ended up becoming something of a fiasco for the city when only one individual successfully retrieved items from a storage facility in downtown Denver over a sixty-day period (others tried but were denied for various reasons). Westword also revealed that the protocol was broken on March 9, when Public Works Manager Jose Cornejo sent an e-mail in which he expressed concern that written signs hadn’t been posted around Sustainability Park 24 hours in advance of a cleanup there; despite this, the city elected to go forward with that sweep.

It’s clear that the encumbrance protocol was not used on July 13, either.

“So it’s currently about one o’clock in the morning here at Confluence Park. there are over twenty cops here.”

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Following the sweep, numerous requests by Westword and the ACLU for any documentation about how the city planned to handle homeless people’s property, and for any cataloguing of property confiscated during the sweep, were met with claims that no such documents exist.

ACLU of Colorado Executive Director Nathan Woodliff-Stanley says that when it comes to the public encumbrance removal procedure that was used in front of the media during the March 8 sweep, “The city appears to have created a protocol that was followed exactly once and never again as police continued regular sweeps all over town intended to push people from one place to the next.”

Woodliff-Stanley is also highly critical of Denver’s approach to homeless individuals’ property in general.

“Since the city’s well-publicized sweeps in March, there has been no consistency in terms of notice, record-keeping, seizure of property, or even the laws that are used to justify police actions,” he says. “The Fourth Amendment protects all people, rich and poor, from unreasonable search and seizure. It’s especially wrong and inhumane to take property from someone when it is what they rely on for shelter and it is all that they have in the world.”

After the July 13 sweep and celebratory barbecue that followed, congratulatory e-mails were exchanged among city officials, including this message from Parks and Rec’s Scott Gilmore, which included an attached photo of the city employees, sheriff’s trustees and volunteers who made up the River Dance cleanup crew:

An after-action report was also compiled by Sergeant Alfonso Cervera, detailing the Night Crawler part of the operation (no after-action report was ever filed for River Dance).

In his report, Cervera wrote:

In addition, Cervera notes that the Denver Police Department’s helicopter, Air One, was used for one hour during the sweep and that 31 officers took part in the Night Crawler operation.

While it is not clear how much both operations on July 13 cost the city, interviews conducted by Westword with various homeless-service providers and Denver City Council members indicate that the sweep occurred without the mayor’s administration having consulted them ahead of time — a fact that drew considerable concern and disappointment from interviewees, given the controversial and police-first nature of the operation.

Councilman Wayne New was unequivocal in how he felt about not being briefed about Night Crawler and River Dance. “We should know about something that’s going to be a major public event,” he says. When it comes to sweeps, he adds, “We’ve got to find a better way.”

Councilman Paul Lopez tells Westword, “I’m shocked that we were kept in the dark regarding these sweeps.”

“I’m shocked that we were kept in the dark regarding these sweeps.”

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While Lopez acknowledges that parks and public spaces must be kept clean and safe for Denver’s residents, he wonders why the administration would carry out a large joint operation like Night Crawler and River Dance without being transparent: “What does the administration have to hide?

“I know that a lot of my colleagues [on City Council] do not support these types of sweeps,” he continues. “These actions warrant another examination of the urban-camping ban, which I do not support.”

It also appears that little has changed regarding the Mayor’s Commission on Homelessness since some of the fallout of the March sweeps, when prominent voices such as Tom Luehrs of the St. Francis Center and John Parvensky of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless criticized the mayor for not consulting his own commission or many of its individual members to help mitigate the effects of uprooting homeless encampments.

Luehrs calls the city’s continued emphasis on sweeps “disturbing” and says that actions such as those taken on July 13 make it difficult for his organization’s outreach workers to build relationships with homeless individuals and figure out ways to transition them into housing.

“When a camp is closed and the people in the camp have been getting some help or direction for their future from our outreach workers, it does become more challenging to find them and thus work toward their moving from the streets,” he says.

“As for the Homeless Commission’s knowledge and involvement in these actions...the Commission is not informed or asked for their input or opinions,” he adds.

Cathy Alderman of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, which also has its own outreach team, echoed some of Luehrs’s sentiments.

“Our outreach workers are having a hard time not only finding [the homeless], but reconnecting with them after finding them,” she explains.

While large sweeps like the one on July 13 are of concern, Alderman says that it’s regular enforcement of the camping ban that causes distrust among the city’s homeless population, along with sleep deprivation among individuals who can sometimes be “moved along three or four times in a single night.”

The ACLU’s Woodliff-Stanley disapproves of how the city appears to have unilaterally planned the July 13 sweep. “In crafting a response to homelessness, the city ought to listen to service providers, the Homeless Commission, the City Council and actual people experiencing homelessness,” he says. “Instead, this administration appears to take its cues far too frequently from developers and business interests who are motivated by increasing property values and retail spending.”

Westword reached out to Mayor Hancock’s office for comment about its specific planning process and intentions for the July 13 sweep. The office’s resonse:

“There are complex issues involved with the encampments of people living outdoors in our city. This includes health and safety risks for those encamped there and also for those who live and work in the area. There are also serious public-health concerns, including infestations, drug use and other illegal activity.

“Through our efforts to address these encampments, our No. 1 priority is helping the people we come in contact with to find the individualized assistance they need.

“Every encampment is different, and the needs of every person are unique, but our approach to connect people and help them to stabilize their lives has been consistent.

“We have safe spaces during the day, we have beds open at night, we have services at the ready, and we will remain focused on helping our people.”

In the mayor’s annual State of the City address, which he delivered at Denver International Airport just two days before the July 13 sweep, he maintained that his administration is dedicated to addressing the problem of homelessness.

“We can have development without displacement. It does not have to be either-or,” he said, mentioning specific efforts around homelessness, including the opening of the Lawrence Street Community Center, a new pilot program that aims to hire twelve homeless individuals per week beginning this fall, and the implementation of a social-impact bond to permanently house 250 chronically homeless individuals by 2017.

“The failure to consider such alternatives [in Denver] reflects bad social and economic policy.”

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Hancock additionally introduced the new Office of HOPE — Housing and Opportunities for People Everywhere — which he said will “bring a coordinated and comprehensive approach to the policies, programs and projects along the full homeless-to-housing spectrum.”

That office is currently seeking a director and was allocated $650,000 in the mayor’s proposed budget for 2017, which was announced on September 12. Homeless-service providers with whom Westword spoke are cautiously optimistic that the office will provide more direction than has been the case with the city’s current homeless bureaucracy, Denver’s Road Home.

Alderman, of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, points out that in that same budget proposal, $16 million is set aside to hire additional officers to conduct “police operations” and patrol areas like the 16th Street Mall. She says she hopes that’s not indicative of the city taking a policing- rather than service-oriented approach toward homelessness.

Of additional concern is a recent directive, effective September 1, that allows the city to ban suspected drug users from parks for ninety-day periods. Alderman says that, unlike with the July 13 sweep, the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless was given some advance notice of the ban by the city. But the directive is the latest controversial measure by the Hancock administration, with concern among watchdogs such as the ACLU that the directive is not only illegal, but is aimed at policing homeless individuals.

Information about all that occurred
during the July 13 sweeps is limited by subjective accounts, what is handed over through open-records requests and what officials knowledgeable about the operation are willing to say about it.

But it is safe to say that Denver’s ongoing sweeps remain a highly controversial approach to homelessness.

On September 9, the U.S. District Court in Denver received a class action filing that was prepared by lawyer Jason Flores-Williams on behalf of homeless individuals who claim that Denver’s sweeps have violated their Constitutional rights. If the suit is granted, the city could have to defend itself in federal court.

Westword’s recent request for enforcement statistics for the city’s urban-camping ban showed that, from May through August, police officers made 1,497 individual “contacts” with violators — meaning that, at a minimum, a person was told by officers that they had to leave their current location or accept offers of services such as checking into a homeless shelter.

But there are some in the city who believe that forcing people into shelters is unjust, and they’re working to find alternative approaches to the sweeps.

Donald Burnes, who is a member of the Mayor’s Commission on Homelessness and runs the Burnes Institute, a local NGO dedicated to improving the lives of the homeless, says there are other examples around the nation that Denver can look to for more effective policies. “Some cities have taken a much more constructive approach to the issue — namely the creation of alternative, safe, secure living spaces for some of our most vulnerable citizens,” Burnes says.

These spaces can include sanctioned and regulated encampments, where outreach workers are able to provide regular services that can ultimately transition people into housing.

“I recently toured such an alternative in Portland, Oregon, called ‘Right 2 Dream Too,’” Burnes adds. “This community was situated on a quarter of a city block that had been a parking lot, right in the middle of downtown Portland, and it had been officially authorized by the mayor and city council. I came away from my tour very impressed by what a community of individuals had done to create an alternative living space. The failure to consider such alternatives [in Denver] reflects bad social and economic policy.”

But as long as operations like Night Crawler and River Dance continue — especially when carried out by the city without first consulting the public, all of city council and local homeless experts — Denver’s homeless population (which, according to the latest survey by the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative, numbers between 3,500 and 4,000) has only two options: accept services or stay out of sight.

This is especially pertinent as the city is about to enter its first cold season since enforcement of the camping ban, including regular sweeps, ramped up in March of this year.

While Denver is making moves to prepare for increased shelter demand during the winter, including a tentative plan to relocate its critical overflow facility from Peoria and Interstate 70 (which Westword explored in depth in “End of the Road,” our February 11 cover story) to the Sun Valley neighborhood, the question remains of what options are available for those who exercise their right to decline shelters.

One thing is clear: Even as the weather turns colder, the homeless situation continues to heat up.
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Chris Walker is a freelancer and former staff writer at Westword. Before moving to the Mile High City he spent two years bicycling across Eurasia, during which he wrote feature stories for VICE, NPR, Forbes, and The Atlantic. Read more of Chris's feature work and view his portfolio here.
Contact: Chris Walker