Denver Clearing Homeless Encampments in Five Points Today

Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
In previous cleanups, those staying in encampments have moved their belongings temporarily and then returned.
Today, May 27, city staffers will clear out dozens of tents that have sprung up in encampments in the Five Points neighborhood during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The sweep is set to begin at 8 a.m. and will cover California Street from 20th to 22nd streets and 21st Street from Stout to Welton streets.

There have been other major cleanup actions in the neighborhood in recent weeks. Today, however, the city will require people in the targeted areas to leave and not return for an as-yet undetermined number of days. This marks a new strategy for Denver officials who, throughout the pandemic, have allowed homeless individuals camping out in Five Points to return to the same spot after it's been cleaned up.

"The Denver Department of Public Health & Environment is concerned that the locations...present public and environmental health risks due to unsafe conditions associated with recent and ongoing observations by public health investigators, including piles of uncontained trash, used needles, insects, human waste and other biohazards," says Tammy Vigil, a spokesperson for the department.

During and after the cleanup, access to these areas "will be temporarily restricted for any purpose other than passing through on the public rights-of-way and accessing local residences and businesses," adds Vigil.

With the restrictions in place, workers will be able to clear and clean the areas and determine what steps need to be taken before they're reopened.

This cleanup action reflects the basic goals of Mayor Michael Hancock's administration through his time in office: clear tent encampments from public spaces and sidewalks, and try to get the homeless into local shelters.

The major difference now is that shelter providers in Denver have largely consolidated their efforts in order to get individuals housed in two large, temporary auxiliary shelters that allow for greater social distancing during the pandemic, as well as offer services that might help people get off the streets for good.

On the night of May 25, 785 men stayed at the shelter at the auxiliary National Western Center, while 205 women stayed at the facility in the Denver Coliseum. Additionally, 380 hotel and motel rooms were occupied by other homeless individuals, some of whom were self-quarantining.

But, as in non-pandemic times, some homeless individuals in Denver prefer camping outside in tents to going into shelters.

Khaled, a 28-year-old who has been living outside in Denver since last summer, says he made it through the winter in a tent and plans on continuing his stay outdoors.

"Are you going to send me to a fucking cattle auction place?" asks Khaled, who declined to give his last name. "I'm not a fucking cattle."

Recognizing the reluctance of people like Khaled to go into any shelter, whether large or small, a coalition of homeless service providers have been pitching the concept of a temporary safe camping site for up to 100 people to the Hancock administration.

The service providers pushing the concept, including the Colorado Village Collaborative, the organization behind the creation of Denver's lone tiny home village, have already figured out how to fund the project with donations.

However, city officials charged with handling homelessness have been noncommittal, according to proponents of the plan, who have yet to receive any kind of answer from the Hancock administration.

In addition to today's planned sweep in Five Points, the city plans to conduct another cleanup on a to-be-announced date in a nearby neighborhood. Neither of these actions are being taken under the city's camping-ban ordinance, which prevents homeless individuals from camping outside, as justification; instead, they're citing other city public-health ordinances.

That law, though still on the books, remains in limbo. A municipal judge declared it unconstitutional in December 2019; the city is currently appealing his decision.