Denver Will Sweep Encampment Surrounding Four Winds American Indian Council

Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
The City of Denver plans to sweep an encampment outside Four Winds American Indian Council.
Despite pleas to cancel a planned sweep, the City of Denver will move ahead with clearing out a homeless encampment that surrounds Four Winds American Indian Council.

"They are capable of stopping the sweep tomorrow; they just don't want to," says Sky Roosevelt-Morris, a member of Four Winds, which has a community center at West Fifth Avenue and Bannock Street.

The sweep is set to start in the early morning hours of Tuesday, August 31. The encampment of about twenty people wraps around the grass along the sidewalk in front of the center, which has been providing drinking water and electricity to the residents.

"Right now, the camp is almost entirely Native American, and really, these are folks that have been — that are — refugees in their own homelands, due to the policies of the City of Denver as well as the historical situation, with 98 percent of Indigenous territories being stolen and all of the treaties having been broken," says Mateo Parsons, chair of Four Winds American Indian Council.

Sharon Barth, a 51-year-old Native American woman who has been staying in the vicinity for over two months, says that she and other Native people experiencing homelessness set up camp near the Native American community center because "we're Native and this is a Native church; it's Native-owned."

"Mr. Hancock walked with the Natives before for Columbus Day," Barth says. "He should understand what we're going through." She adds that she's been connected with housing in Aurora through the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, but won't move in until all of her close friends on the street also get into housing.

Residents of the encampment and leadership from Four Winds American Indian Council met with Mayor Michael Hancock virtually on the afternoon of August 30.

"He basically said that this is the law and he has to enforce the law," says Ana Cornelius, an organizer with Denver Homeless Out Loud. "Residents were offered fourteen-day motel vouchers with no subsidy on the back end. Most of these folks have been through many sweeps."

Denver has multiple laws that the city cites when clearing out encampments, including a camping ban and a public right-of-way ordinance. Denver officials have continued sweeping homeless encampments throughout most of the COVID-19 pandemic, despite the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advising against sweeps unless individual housing is available.

Although Cornelius feels that the meeting was more of the same-old from the mayor's office, Hancock staffers frame it differently.

"The meeting was productive, and alternative options were discussed for those who were in the encampment. As well, several of the individuals in the encampment were connected with housing already through outreach efforts," says Mike Strott, a spokesperson for Mayor Hancock.

While Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders and American Indian/Alaskan Natives make up just .1 percent and .8 percent of Denver metro's population, respectively, those categories account for 1.5 percent and 5.6 percent of the homeless population in the 2020 Point in Time count of people experiencing homelessness in the region.

In the run-up to the sweep, Four Winds American Indian Council had been pushing for the Hancock administration to set up an alternative site for those staying in the encampment.

"We're asking them to help create a Native-preference safe outdoor space, so in the future this doesn't happen and folks can have a place to go that's sanctioned by the city and has resources attached to it so that service delivery doesn't get interrupted," says Parsons.

But while nearby land has already been identified for a potential safe outdoor space — there are currently two such safe-camping sites in Denver — no firm timelines for when the space would be operational have been set.

In the meantime, with a sweep looming, Roosevelt-Morris says, "If that means civil resistance tomorrow, that means civil resistance tomorrow. If that means the camp comes back after the fences come down, the camp comes back after the fences come down."

Roosevelt-Morris is welcoming people to drop by the community center this evening to spend the night inside so that they're "inside the fences when the fences go up."