A new survey conducted by Denver Homeless Out Loud highlights the ineffectiveness of the City of Denver's sweeps of homeless encampments. "It's like we're just running circles every day," said Paul Walls, a 55-year-old man who lives on the streets, at a July 19 press conference in Civic Center Park announcing the results.
According to Denver Homeless Out Loud's survey of 150 people experiencing unsheltered homelessness across Denver from April to August 2020, the city's sweeps rarely accomplish much more than creating cleaner streets, and instead lead to displacement and loss of belongings.
Out of the 150 respondents, 89.3 percent reported having experienced a sweep or the city taking away their property. That the percentage was so high is noteworthy, says Terese Howard, a DHOL organizer, because the study took place during a "low point for sweeps," in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Of those who reported experiencing a sweep, 69 percent said they moved to another block nearby. And 70.4 percent said that they eventually returned to a location from which they had been previously swept.
"That's a huge number, and if we think that that is somehow effective — if there's any way to call it effective to move people, just to come right back to the same block — then I don't know what kind of brains we've got going on here," Howard said at the Civic Center gathering.
In addition to an overarching recommendation that the City of Denver stop sweeps altogether, the report offers sixteen more suggestions for the city, including providing trash and waste disposal at encampments; creating better awareness about, and increased hours for, the city's storage center for belongings picked up during sweeps; and ending the use of police tape and fencing during sweeps.
The fencing, which Denver has been using for over a year to keep protesters away from sweeps, is "traumatizing" and causing people to "feel trapped," the study says.
DHOL started the survey to look at how the City of Denver was abiding by a September 2019 federal court settlement related to encampment sweeps; the timing with the pandemic was a coincidence. But after the survey was complete and before the results were presented, homeless advocates scored a major legal victory.
In January, Judge William J. Martinez of the U.S. District Court of Colorado ruled in a case brought forward by Denver Homeless Out Loud last fall that the City of Denver had not been providing enough notice before the sweeping of encampments, and needed to give seven days' notice going forward with the dispersal of encampments.
Although Denver did slow sweeps for several months early in 2020, the city has been sweeping encampments at a fast clip over the last year or so.
"They are replacing us with rocks," Benjamin Dunning, a DHOL organizer, said, referring to the ad hoc landscaping set up to keep people off strips of land. "This is a very strong metaphor for what the city is doing in regards to addressing our homeless communities."
Mayor Michael Hancock's office did not respond to a request for comment about the study; read the full DHOL report here.