At the first Denver City Council meeting each month, there is a thirty minute public-comment session in which citizens are invited to relay concerns related to the city.
At the latest meeting, on Monday, December 5, the session was dominated by one issue: homelessness.
Thirteen of the fifteen speakers, who were each given a maximum of three minutes, addressed the chamber with personal and emotional appeals to end Denver's ongoing sweeps of homeless people, as well as its enforcement of the Unauthorized Camping Ordinance — better known as the "urban camping ban."
As we noted this week, public outrage against Denver's crackdown on homelessness is building.
"In the past month, I've seen three young adults under 25 crying and saying 'I'm ready to die,'" said Stephanie Marrero. "This is a really sick situation. And there are many other ways to solve this situation besides banning survival and having a budget for police to be bullies. Because [the police] are starting to get enjoyment out of harassing people, and that's really twisted."
The speakers, which included both homeless people and advocates, were united in their opposition to the city's sweeps and enforcement of the camping ban.
Among them was PJ D'Amico, executive director of the Buck Foundation, who was arrested on November 28 for refusing to leave an area of sidewalk along Lawrence Street that was taped off by police as they were conducting a sweep. For days, he had been documenting police activity there using Facebook Live. He also streamed the entire public-comment session of Monday night's city council meeting, which you can watch below:
One of the most powerful speeches was by Sophia Lawson, a homeless-outreach worker with the St. Francis Center.
"I see the direct impact of these sweeps every day on our community members," Lawson said. "[The sweeps] impede me from being able to deliver the services that the city says the sweeps help to provide — to connect people to resources.
"That's a bald-faced lie," she continued. "I've been with women who, the night after they were swept, experienced rape. And as a result of this most recent sweep this past Monday [the 28th], four people have missed their mental-health intakes, countless people missed their housing appointments with me, I have people begging for assistance getting their IDs and their birth certificates [back.... I won't be quiet anymore. The sweeps have to stop now."
All of the members of Denver City Council were noticeably attentive, especially during the more emotional speeches. As is customary, they remained silent, refraining from comment to allow as many members of the public to speak during the thirty-minute window as possible.
It is the position of the Mayor's Office that it is unhealthy and unsafe for people to be sleeping outside. In a press release sent out on December 5, the city announced that it was preparing for winter weather by adding 120 new spaces to its overflow facility at I-70 and Peoria Street, a former call center that Westword explored in the in-depth cover story "End of the Road."
"The current expansion will allow the City to serve at least another 100 people. Denver’s Road Home partners with community-based providers to ensure the network is able to expand and contract to meet demand and sustain no turn-aways due to a lack of space," the release says.
The city has also stressed that its cleanup operations and enforcement of the anti-camping ordinance should not be classified as "sweeps," though documents obtained by Westword through Colorado Open Records Act requests show that the term is used regularly by city officials and the Denver Police Department in internal communications.
Before Monday's City Council meeting began, organizer Terese Howard of Denver Homeless Out Loud told a gathering of homeless people and advocates that the current council has a different makeup than the council that passed the Unauthorized Camping Ordinance in 2012.
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She believes that there are six members who would now vote to repeal the camping ban, and said her organization is working to convince three more to take that position — allowing for a nine-vote super-majority that could override a veto by Mayor Michael Hancock, who supported the ordinance when it was established in 2012.
"In the past nine months, since March, there has been a 500 percent increase in enforcement of the camping ban," Howard told the council during her speech on Monday. "The solution is repealing the law that makes it illegal to use sleeping bags, tarps and other basic forms of survival. That's a solution that we can do right now, with this council."
Immediately following the public-comment session, the council launched into its regular meeting agenda, leaving those who spoke to wonder what, if any, effect their speeches had.