The Bum's Rush

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.

Now spring has sprung, which means the birds are singing, the flowers are blooming, and the city's about to do a clean sweep of the homeless from its front porch.

Following much the same procedure used several years ago, when homeless people living along Cherry Creek and the Platte were evicted, the city is about to post its notices. "Outreach workers will work with people sleeping at the City and County Building to inform them about the enforcement schedule and help them make alternative plans," the Department of Human Services memo continues. "They will also make referrals to supportive services. Motel vouchers will be available, on a short-term basis, for individuals who cannot use shelters."

That's a lot of them, more than there are motel vouchers for, according to Parvensky. The city would have done better to address the issue rather than come up with a solution that its own memo admits is only short-term, he says. Some of the homeless are parts of couples who do not want to split up for single-sex shelters; some cannot pass the sobriety tests required; some are mentally ill; some simply don't want to go inside. And those who do often can't snag one of the 1,176 individual shelter spots. "Most of the shelters are filled to capacity," Parvensky says.

"Every month," Parvensky wrote Webb again, "we see lower cost apartments being converted to condominiums. Boarding homes are being closed. Apartment owners are increasing their rents beyond the reach of those who are disabled and poor. The existing shelters are not adequate to meet the needs of homeless persons in Denver...This is not just the Coalition's problem. This is a community-wide problem."

And so the homeless landed right on the city's doorstep.

"It's not a proper spot for them to be," says Councilman Ed Thomas, who ran afoul of Parvensky during the Cherry Creek sweep, when his coalition tried to get a temporary restraining order to stop the evictions. When Thomas got involved in the discussions this March, he was rewarded with a "compliments of Ed Thomas" sign placed on the portable toilet that temporarily graced a spot near the City and County Building. "This is an inappropriate place for them to be," he repeats. "They need to be inside."

As for that, at least, the city does have a solution. The eviction notice that is supposed to be posted -- any day now, really! -- alerts citizens that "sleeping on City owned property violates City Ordinance RMC 38-115, regarding trespassing. Please vacate these areas by May 2, 2000. After that date, City agencies will remove any persons trespassing. Any persons found sleeping around any City and County building will be subject to arrest."

And the Denver jail, with those tidy little bunks, is just a convenient block away.

Throw the bums out.

But which ones?


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