Is Denver Going for a Clean Sweep of the City's Homeless?

Jerry Burton at Resurrection Village.
Jerry Burton at Resurrection Village.
Anthony Camera

The cops arrived at ten in the morning, setting up a perimeter around the two dozen homeless individuals who were camping in the area known as “Resurrection Village,” near the former Big Wonderful site at the intersection of 26th and Arapahoe streets.

The officers didn’t come alone. Their arrival was followed by a flatbed truck, from which Denver Department of Public Works employees unloaded green roller trash cans.

Ray Lyall and Jerry Burton, two of the individuals sleeping in Resurrection Village on the morning of March 9, knew exactly what the trash cans were for: They were about to have their possessions confiscated by the city, as part of a directive from the Mayor’s Office to dismantle homeless encampments near downtown Denver.

Even though Lyall and Burton realized what was happening, they were still shocked. This was different from the well-publicized sweep that had occurred the day before, near the Denver Rescue Mission and Samaritan House on Park Avenue West. In that instance, there had been advance notices posted along the street by the city, and reporters and TV crews had amassed at the scene.

Lyall and Burton had been there themselves, helping some of their friends move possessions from Park Avenue to Resurrection Village four blocks away so that those belongings wouldn’t be trashed or confiscated by Public Works employees. They’d been prepared.

But now the sweeps had come to Resurrection Village, and they were frantically trying to heap as many items as possible in the back of a large pickup truck and trailer parked nearby. The truck, which is owned by Denver Homeless Out Loud, is key to a system the pair has devised. “We put our things in there every morning to keep us from losing our stuff,” explains Burton. “That means that this is probably the cleanest block 99 percent of the time in Denver.”

Without any signs or other advance notice that there would be a sweep at Resurrection Village, Burton and Lyall had to change their plans; they hadn’t anticipated that others would need help protecting their belongings. Even as they loaded things into the truck, Public Works employees were sorting through items, determining whether they would be destroyed or confiscated and stored in a city facility for thirty days.

“If the items looked useful, they got tagged” for storage, Burton says. “If they looked like trash, they didn’t.”

“But that’s a really hard call to make,” says Lyall, “because my trash may not be someone else’s trash.”

Both believe that the city conducted the March 9 sweep because many of the homeless who’d been camped along Park Avenue had moved to Resurrection Village after the first sweep. In fact, some of the people displaced on March 8 ended up having things taken from them twice — some possessions during the first sweep, more during the second. It was the first indication of a sustained crackdown, that police would continue chasing the people that they’d uprooted from other encampments.

That suspicion was reinforced after a group of homeless individuals who’d left Resurrection Village after the March 9 sweep and camped along the South Platte River told Burton and Lyall that there had been a sweep of the river, too, a few days later.

In mid-March, they heard about a second group being displaced from the banks of the Platte.

“It means that there’s just nowhere that you can go anymore,” says Burton. “You go to one block, and [the police] follow you over there. Then you go three blocks down, and they follow you down there. So it’s like they’re telling us that we have to walk around and around and there’s nowhere we can stop.”

Since March 9, they say, police have been showing up at Resurrection Village on an almost nightly basis, issuing “move on” orders based on the city’s urban-camping ban.

Ray Lyall sleeps under this tree at Resurrection Village at night.
Ray Lyall sleeps under this tree at Resurrection Village at night.
Anthony Camera

The continued crackdown has scattered the homeless into small and roving groups, each trying to find hidden spots where they can sleep and store the few items they still possess. While some individuals have checked into Denver’s crowded homeless shelters, those who want to stay outside of the shelters “are trying to find places the cops won’t go,” says Burton.

While the homeless sweep on March 8 was well documented by news outlets, gaining national attention after the Colorado chapter of the ACLU blasted the action, the news cycle has already moved on.

But concerns raised by the sweeps cannot be swept aside by the city. According to the ACLU, the city is criminalizing homelessness, and the confiscation of the homeless individuals’ belongings could violate the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits the seizure and destruction of private property without due process of law.

And the city’s actions have infuriated many service providers for the homeless, suggesting that a new low has been reached in the relationship between those who work with the homeless and Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration. That quickly became apparent at a recent Denver Commission on Homelessness meeting.

The March 22 Denver Commission on Homelessness meeting at the Denver Department of Human Services building was the first since the sweeps began. The meeting agenda that had been prepared beforehand and distributed to the commission’s members, which include some of the city’s most experienced homeless-service directors, started with these three items:

1. Introduction
2. Remarks by Mayor Michael B. Hancock
3. Discussion Topics
•Street Encampment Actions

But it turned out that the mayor would not be coming after all. As dozens of commission members sat facing each other along tables formed into a giant rectangle, Bennie Milliner, the head of Denver’s Road Home, addressed the group. “Unfortunately, I have been notified, very recently, that [the Mayor] will not be here.... But I do have a letter from his office,” Milliner announced.

Lyall stashes his belongings in a nearby truck during the day.
Lyall stashes his belongings in a nearby truck during the day.
Anthony Camera

Milliner proceeded to read a statement from Hancock that thanked the commission members for their service and explained that he was not attending the meeting because his presence “may in turn become disruptive and counterproductive.”

Then Milliner delivered the city’s position on the sweeps: “We will not just sit by and allow encampments to grow all around the city...so with that, we can talk further about the encampment issues, but as a city we will continue to minimize those camps.”

All anyone wanted to talk about was “the encampment issues.” That’s because the commission had not been notified of the sweeps in advance, much less consulted. Even the heads of some of Denver’s most well-known service providers, which receive funding from the city, were critical.

“I’m really disappointed that the mayor’s not here today. I was hoping we would have a civil conversation about this in his presence,” Tom Luehrs of the St. Francis Center told the group. “[The sweeps] would have been a good topic for us to have as a commission — maybe to inform the situation — but certainly to make all of us more aware so that we weren’t reading about it in the paper.”

Don Burnes, who heads a nonprofit called the Burnes Institute on Poverty and Homelessness and has written about and researched homelessness issues for over twenty years, was equally critical. “I’m deeply disturbed by a lot of the conversation this afternoon,” he said. “First of all, I agree with Tom [Luehrs]. This was in the offing for a long time, and why we didn’t have more conversation as a commission about this, I don’t know. It disturbs me that somehow this group is not being asked for its advice and counsel. I was really saddened to see the sweeps on television last week. And I kept saying to myself, ‘Where are these folks supposed to go?’”

The group later heard from Nathan Woodliff-Stanley, executive director of the ACLU of Colorado, who is not a commission member but came to the meeting hoping to deliver a statement to Hancock. “You have criminalized homelessness,” Woodliff-Stanley said in that statement. “The ACLU has concerns about the confiscation of property, the implication being that if you don’t have a home, you don’t have the right to have more possessions than you can carry on your body and carry in your arms. There is no reason why that should be the case.”

Over the next couple of hours, other visitors and more commission members delivered scathing statements against the sweeps. The public criticism was unprecedented coming from the group that is supposed to be the mayor’s main advisory counsel on homelessness.

Service provider John Parvensky says that the city doesn’t seem to have a plan to address homelessness.
Service provider John Parvensky says that the city doesn’t seem to have a plan to address homelessness.
Anthony Camera

The Denver Commission on Homelessness was established in 2003 by then-mayor John Hickenlooper, to advise the administration on drafting a ten-year plan to end homelessness in accordance with federal guidelines, and to help create an agency within the city government called Denver’s Road Home.

John Parvensky, director of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, has been on the commission from the beginning. “I think that the original commission under the prior administration was a much more collaborative process, with more policy recommendations and problem-solving,” he says. “But I think over the last few years, there’s been a lot of frustration expressed by commission members that it’s not really where the decisions are being made. It’s just a way of providing information back to the commission in terms of what the city is doing. And to be honest, I can’t quite figure out why [the city] is taking this tack.”

Although Don Burnes didn’t join the commission until 2012, he’d been an interested observer and thinks that the dynamic between the Mayor’s Office and many service providers is different today from what it used to be. “In the early days of the ten-year plan, I think there was considerable interaction between the commission and the Mayor’s Office,” he says. “I think it is fair to say that, for the most part, it didn’t feel as though the commission was being ignored.”

But many commission members feel ignored today. According to Parvensky and Burnes, over the past few years, commission members have sat on the sidelines as the city has taken a number of major actions without consulting with the group. That started in 2012, with the city’s ordinance to ban camping in public spaces, which was not presented to the commission until it was a done deal.

“The city didn’t talk to the commission about it until it was essentially a fait accompli,” says Burnes.

Then there were two major investments of city funds — the Lawrence Street Community Center, which opened in late November, and the Solutions Center, a facility in southwest Denver that has yet to open — that took big bites out of the limited homelessness budget, but the commission never got to discuss them, Parvensky says.

And now there are the sweeps of the homeless, which Parvensky says he didn’t know about until four days before they started — the same day that the city notified most news outlets.

(Both the Denver Rescue Mission and Samaritan House say they were informed of the encampment cleanups up to three weeks before the action, but they decline to talk about it further with Westword.)

In April 2015, the Denver Auditor’s Office released a report critical of Denver’s Road Home, which also questioned the role of the Commission on Homelessness and why it wasn’t being used more effectively. “That report was absolutely right on,” Burnes says. “You have forty people on this commission, including some of the leading experts in the city, and we get together for two hours once every couple of months, sit around and accomplish very little.”

As a result, Luehrs says, “it’s not clear to me if the city has a vision or plan going forward.”

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He calls the city’s current approach to homelessness “schizophrenic.” On the one hand, Denver is helping some homeless individuals obtain housing through its recent “Social Impact Bond,” which will place 250 chronically homeless individuals into supportive housing by 2017. But on the other hand, Luehrs says, it was wrong of the city to have given homeless people who camped on Park Avenue “false hope.” For three months before the sweeps, those individuals were allowed to form encampments, making them feel like it was okay to sleep there…until suddenly it wasn’t. But he can appreciate why businesses and neighbors were pressuring the mayor to do something about the encampments, Luehrs adds, since they were a highly visible reminder of Denver’s homelessness problem. He also believes that most members of the commission would agree that the situation along Park Avenue was unsustainable and that something had to be done. He just wishes that the commission had had a role in preparing the next steps for assisting homeless individuals who were told they couldn’t stay there.

While the city wants homeless people to go to shelters, it cannot force them to do so, Luehrs notes; using shelters is voluntary, and some of the homeless have personal reasons — health concerns, claustrophobia, mental-health issues and more — for avoiding them.

For his part, Parvensky calls the actions by Hancock’s office “reactive.”

“They don’t really have a comprehensive strategy to address homelessness,” Parvenksy says. “It appears that folks within the executive team in the Mayor’s Office are where the decision-making is coming from.”

At the March 22 meeting, the person left to speak for Hancock was Bennie Milliner, executive director of Denver’s Road Home.

“Bennie is in a very difficult position,” Burnes says. “The head of Denver’s Road Home is a mayoral appointment, which means that, in a very real sense, he has to essentially endorse the mayor’s position or he could very well jeopardize his own position. And I think his attitude and tone — what I would call his defensiveness at our last meeting — are all indicative of trying to be a buffer between two disagreeing 

groups.”

“It’s important to remember how far we’ve come in Denver when it comes to coordination and partnerships around the issue of homelessness,” Milliner said in a statement to Westword. “The coordination of services to assist those who find themselves homeless is far better today than it was when Denver’s Road Home and the Homelessness Commission were first formed more than ten years ago. For example, working together during the most recent blizzard, we were able to shelter more than 1,700 people from the winter cold. Working together over the last four years, we expanded women’s shelter options and created more than 5,300 employment and job-training opportunities for people experiencing homelessness. What’s more, working together over the last four years, we prevented homelessness from ever occurring for approximately 1,200 people in Denver. These accomplishments were only possible because of the partnerships we’ve formed as a community. Thoughtful people will sometimes disagree.

That doesn’t put me in conflict with my mission as the executive director of Denver’s Road Home or with the city’s mission or the mission of the homeless commission — which is to help the people experiencing homelessness in our city.”

Mayor Hancock did not respond to Westword’s requests for interviews, but his deputy communications director, Jenna Espinoza, told Westword that Hancock's office respects and values members of the Commission on Homelessness, and that the city will spend $50 million on its homelessness efforts during 2016. 

(Two weeks ago, Westword also filed a number of Colorado Open Records Act requests with the Mayor’s Office and the Department of Human Services, asking for internal documents related to the planning of the sweeps. Both the Mayor’s Office and Human Services waited more than a week — responses are supposed to come within three working days — before informing Westword on April 1 that payment was required to proceed. Although payment was delivered early on April 4, no documents have yet been made available.)

Tom Luehrs is executive director of the St. Francis Center.
Tom Luehrs is executive director of the St. Francis Center.
Anthony Camera

The March actions weren’t the first time that Denver has engaged in homeless sweeps. At 6 a.m. on December 15, the city broke up encampments along Park Avenue. According to homeless individuals who were there, personal items taken by police officers and Public Works employees were simply discarded in the back of a dump truck, never to be seen again.

That got the attention of the ACLU of Colorado.

Mark Silverstein, legal director for the ACLU of Colorado, says his office wanted to know if Denver was following any specific procedure when it engaged in such sweeps. In January, the ACLU asked Denver Director of Safety Stephanie O’Malley for the “public encumbrance removal procedure,” and in February, the organization received a document that listed a few different requirements, including posted notice of property removal at least 24 hours in advance, cataloguing property deemed to be of value, and making available retrieval of that property for thirty days after it is inventoried.

But when the ACLU later issued CORA requests to the Department of Public Works, asking for inventory records of what was confiscated during the December 15 sweep, the city said that no responsive documents existed. The ACLU had also asked for the criteria that Public Works employees use during sweeps to determine whether something is of value and will be stored for retrieval, but again Public Works said that it had no responsive documents.

Whether the criteria were in place during the December 15 sweep or written later, the protocol certainly existed before the current sweeps began on March 8 (and was violated when no advance notice was posted at Resurrection Village before the March 9 action).

The items that survived the March 8 and 9 raids are now stashed in nearly 100 55-gallon bags being held in green roller trash cans at a facility across the street from the Lindsey-Flanigan Courthouse at 1221 Glenarm Place. So far, only a handful of people have come forward to retrieve their belongings during the two hours a day on weekdays that the facility is open, and not all of them have found success.

On Friday, March 25, Terese Howard of the activist group Denver Homeless Out Loud went to the facility with a homeless man named Thomas who was unable to retrieve a bag taken from him, she remembers, because he couldn’t exactly describe the picture on a blanket inside his bag, even though he correctly recalled the blanket’s color. Denver Homeless Out Loud released a video of the encounter. 

Those who show up at the Glenarm building to claim possessions aren’t allowed to sort through the items themselves; according to the Department of Human Services, the items are kept in opaque trash cans so that people can’t see the possessions of others and then claim them as their own. Instead, they must stop at the front door and either produce a receipt or accurately describe what was taken from them.

But not all of the homeless people uprooted on March 8 and 9 received receipts. “Common sense tells you that that kind of a system is too onerous,” says the ACLU’s Silverstein. “If you leave some property at some business that has a Lost and Found and you go back to recover it, how well do you have to describe it before they give it back to you?”

Most of the items now in the building are slated to be destroyed around April 8, when the thirty-day storage period ends. (Human Services’ Julie Smith says that the city has not yet committed to a hard date, and will extend the time period for those facing “situations outside their control,” such as incarceration or hospitalization.)

But those belongings aren’t the ACLU’s only concern. Silverstein has also heard anecdotal reports that the sweeps now appear to be targeting people, not property. “The way that the much-publicized sweep [on March 8] worked, it sounded like this was a measure to clear encumbrances on the sidewalks, that it was all about property,” he explains. “But in the reports we’ve gotten from Denver Homeless Out Loud, the orders were that people had to move, invoking the camping ban as a reason. And it wasn’t anymore about property on the sidewalks.”

This is troubling, Silverstein says, given that even the federal government’s Interagency Council on Homelessness has come out against dismantling homeless encampments. In a statement issued last summer, the council said that “the forced dispersal of people from encampment settings is not an appropriate solution or strategy, accomplishes nothing toward the goal of linking people to permanent housing opportunities, and can make it more difficult to provide such lasting solutions to people who have been sleeping and living in the encampment.”

“That’s the federal government saying that,” Silverstein notes.

Natalia Marshall was handcuffed at Mayor Hancock’s April 2 “Cabinet in the Community” meeting in southeast Denver.
Natalia Marshall was handcuffed at Mayor Hancock’s April 2 “Cabinet in the Community” meeting in southeast Denver.

Even though most news outlets seem to have moved beyond the sweeps, some local organizations are trying to keep the discussion alive.

Denver Homeless Out Loud held a rally in front of the City and County Building on March 21, and members of Black Lives Matter 5280 demonstrated at Mayor Hancock’s “Cabinet in the Community” meeting in southeast Denver on April 2. After half a dozen members of the group interrupted the mayor and held up signs that read “Stop the sweeps,” Hancock asked the protesters to step aside before police then escorted them out of the auditorium at Thomas Jefferson High School. Natalia Marshall — the niece of Michael Marshall, who died following a controversial confrontation with sheriff’s deputies at a Denver jail last November — was handcuffed at the April 2 protest, though she was not arrested.

Those organizations don’t limit their actions to pointing out that the sweeps are ongoing. They want the city to come up with real solutions for Denver’s homeless population.

Most service providers agree that providing affordable and long-term housing needs to be the city’s focus — but getting to that point is the challenge. If some homeless people don’t want to go into shelters for personal reasons, what other steps can the city take to address the individuals who have been uprooted by the sweeps?

Burnes and Luehrs both suggest a temporary, city-sanctioned encampment. “People who are homeless can thrive if other people are around them; like the rest of us, they need that sense of community,” says Luehrs. “And there’s space at Resurrection Village right now. So let’s act as if we are one united city here and say, ‘We’ve gotta take care of these people right now.’ What they need is a space. And a space is available.”

Such an encampment should be temporary, he adds, and could even switch locations around the city every few months so that different neighborhoods share responsibility for what should be viewed as a citywide problem. He says he would also communicate with inhabitants of the camp to let them know that the camp has an expiration date, to avoid the false sense of security and the sudden displacement that  happened along Park Avenue.

Burnes envisions a similar setup: “There are some situations around the country — and I don’t like to call them ‘tent cities’ — but they are camps on land that is specifically set aside for people to develop their own 

‘campsites,’ which are monitored.”

The primary advantage to having a centralized encampment is that service providers can easily and routinely reach homeless individuals there, to help monitor their health and transition them into housing.

Both Luehrs and Parvensky say that outreach workers from their organizations have reported difficulties  reaching people since the encampments along Park Avenue were broken up.

“Our outreach workers are saying, ‘Some of the people I was working with, I can’t find them now,’” says Luehrs. He worries that the health of some homeless individuals who used to camp along Park Avenue could be deteriorating because they’ve gone into hiding and are no longer checked by outreach workers.

“Some of the relationships that our outreach workers had developed with people are fractured now because they see the outreach workers as an extension of the police department that is forcing them to move on,” Parvensky adds.

Just a month before the sweeps began, about twenty individuals along Park Avenue were helped into supportive housing by outreach workers, Parvensky notes. Now their peers are scattered all over the city.

Ray Lyall and Jerry Burton are easy to find. The former construction worker and former Marine continue to camp along 26th Street at Resurrection Village, laying out their sleeping bags beneath a large tree right in the middle of the west side of the block.

By avoiding putting up tents unless there’s inclement weather, and by storing all of their items in the nearby pickup truck during the day and when police arrive, they’ve been able to thwart efforts to uproot t  hem. And with a few specific exceptions, Burton believes that police officers are actually on their side.

“Most of the cops I talk to, they don’t even want to be doing this,” he says. “They know it’s wrong. But they’ve got a job to do and a family to feed. We understand that.”

In recent weeks, he and Lyall have even started to ignore “move on” orders and written warnings that they receive because of the camping ban.

“Now I wake up and [the police] give me the warning. I fold it up and put it in my wallet and go right back to sleep,” Burton says with a chuckle. He’s already received three written warnings. Lyall has two. And the Resurrection Village camp as a whole has another two.

“We’ve been asking them nicely to give us a ticket,” explains Lyall. “But they don’t want to give out tickets because they know some of us will use them to show that Denver is criminalizing homelessness.”

Lyall, who works with Denver Homeless Out Loud, thinks that officers aren’t issuing citations for camping-ban violations because they have been instructed not to by their superiors, so that when Hancock’s administration needs to defend the camping-ban ordinance, it can point to a low number of citations.

Verbal “move on” orders, the main enforcement tactic of the camping ban, are not documented by police officers, making it impossible to obtain any record of how often they are used.

“Our objective is to get people in touch with services, not to give them tickets, and not to give them discomfort,” says DPD spokesman Sonny Jackson when asked whether officers have been told to avoid issuing camping-ban citations.

Having discovered one way to at least temporarily thwart the city’s crackdown on homelessness, Burton and Lyall hope to persuade more of their peers to challenge officers to issue camping-ban tickets. “That’s our hope. That homeless people will stop being afraid of the police,” says Lyall. “It’s not illegal to be homeless. If you’re not breaking the law, you can stand up to the police and say, ‘No, I’m not moving.’ Ask them for the ticket.”

And why does he think the city is continuing its sweeps? “They’re trying to hide us,” Lyall says. “If we’re not out in the open, then everything’s okay; there is no homelessness.”

He pauses a second to stroke his salt-and-pepper beard.

“But as soon as we show up again, and we will — there will eventually be more people in front of the Mission and Samaritan House — the city will hit back. You’ll see.”

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