UPDATE Friday, 11:30 a.m.: Additional comments from the Department of Human Services have been added at the bottom of this article.
In the weeks following the controversial March 8 and 9 street sweeps that dismantled homeless encampments along Park Avenue West, Westword learned via Colorado Open Records Act requests that the city had spent months preparing a revised “public encumbrance removal procedure” that dictated how the city would confiscate, then make available for retrieval, items belonging to the homeless in a city-run facility for up to thirty days.
Yet as the thirty-day deadline to retrieve items approached, only one person had actually retrieved items.
After another week passed, the city decided to extend the deadline to April 29, at which point, Westword has learned, the items were discarded.
The single individual who reclaimed confiscated property during the first week following the sweeps also ended up being the only one to do so.
This week, after a CBS4 investigation, the city also revealed that $10,740 were paid out of a homeless donation fund run by Denver's Road Home to staff and operate that facility at Glenarm Place. The services were handled by a company called Custom Environmental Services.
The city says this was a mistake, and will pay for remaining costs using the Public Works budget.
As for the destruction of the possessions, Julie Smith of the Department of Human Services says that the deadline was extended in the hopes that more people would retrieve the items.
“In addition, we provided shelters and outreach teams with the names of those we knew who had items located at the facility,” Smith adds. “Ultimately, one person retrieved their items from the site.”
Given that the bulk of items were kept at the facility, questions have arisen as to why the retrieval rate was so low.
As Westword noted in earlier coverage, some of these questions have come from city officials themselves. At a Denver Commission on Homelessness meeting on March 22, Denver's Road Home executive director Bennie Milliner wondered aloud whether the reason that just one person had retrieved items was because most of the possessions weren't worth that much to the homeless to begin with.
But there could be different reasons related to the city's protocol. The public works employees who manned the facility had strict rules concerning the retrieval of items, requiring either proof of an itemized receipt, written when the items were confiscated (which some homeless individuals claim they did not receive), or a detailed verbal description, from memory, of the items taken. No one, including reporters, could go inside the facility to look through the items in the trash cans because of cited privacy concerns and a fear that people might claim items not belonging to them.
Some say that this standard was too strict. In a video posted by Denver Homeless Out Loud, one man tries to retrieve his belongings but is denied because public works officials and police officers at the door deem his verbal description of his belongings to be vague.
In our April 7 cover story, "Clean Sweep," ACLU of Colorado's legal director Mark Silverstein said, “Common sense tells you that that kind of a system is too onerous. 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?”
Additionally, the ACLU maintains that, at its foundation, Denver's “public encumbrance removal procedure” could violate the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits the seizure and destruction of private property without due process of law.
Others, including Tom Luehrs of the St. Francis Center, suggested that a reason for low retrieval rates could have been the location of the Glenarm facility, which is more than a mile from where the homeless encampments were uprooted. Also cited were the times when retrieval was made possible.
As one Westword reader pointed out, “The place is only open from 12 to 2, and that is the exact hours of lunch line-up. If they want to eat that day, they cannot leave the line.”
Offering the city's perspective, Smith of DHS says: "It was surprising to most that so few people reclaimed their possessions. There are many theories about why, but ultimately, only those who did not choose to retrieve them can say for sure. One thing we know is that when we cleared the encampment, people were asked to keep anything of importance and personal value with them and we explained that we would store the other items for them for 30 days...We didn’t find things like IDs, insurance cards or personal mementos. The overwhelming majority of items included clothes, blankets, and toiletries."
Since the March 8 and 9 sweeps, there has not been widespread use of the public encumbrance removal procedure, though homeless individuals have continued to face pressure from enforcement of the urban-camping ban, which was up nearly 500 percent in recent months.
The city did not say whether it would revise protocol for future use, but Smith does say there were lessons learned.
"As for lessons learned, one comment we’ve heard from providers is that the city should not have allowed the encampment to exist as long as it did," Smith says. "They told us that people 'got comfortable' in the area – which was problematic. From our standpoint – we wanted to give ample time for our outreach efforts, but some clearly felt that we could have cleared the encampment sooner. We took as compassionate approach to this issue as possible by focusing on outreach and by storing items that people were unable to, or didn’t want to, take with them when the encampment was cleared."
Now that the items have been destroyed, the facility at Glenarm Place has been emptied.
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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.