Homeless Sweeps: Possessions Taken During Denver Action Go Unclaimed

Inside a nondescript brick building on the corner of Colfax Avenue and Glenarm Place, directly across the street from the Lindsey-Flanigan Courthouse, is a room filled with trash cans.

They're the same kind of trash cans that many Denver residents roll out to the curb each week – green, with roller wheels and flip tops — and the room is filled with many rows of them, neatly aligned and organized.

Except these trash cans contain items that some wouldn't consider “trash” at all: They hold the belongings of homeless individuals that were taken when the city cleared out homeless encampments near Samaritan House on Park Avenue and Lawrence Street starting on March 8. According to Julie Smith, spokeswoman for the Denver Department of Human Services, the sweeps produced nearly one hundred 55-gallon bags filled with homeless individuals' possessions, which were then transferred to the facility and placed in the trash cans.

Individuals who had their belongings confiscated were given thirty days — from the time the items were stored — to retrieve them at the former Emily Griffith Technical College building at 1221 Glenarm Place, which is open from noon to 2 p.m. on weekdays for now.

Westword recently went to check out the facility, but was denied entrance by a police officer and two Department of Public Works employees, on the grounds that they were maintaining privacy for homeless individuals who have their possessions stored there. Westword was also denied permission to take photographs inside the premises.

Still, a glimpse through the front window revealed roughly three dozen trash cans that remain inside, the contents of which will be discarded sometime around April 8 unless they've been claimed. (Smith says the city has not yet committed to a hard date, and will extend the time period for those facing “situations outside their control,” such as incarceration or hospitalization).

The problem is that no one seems to be coming. At a Denver Commission on Homelessness meeting on March 22 (which Mayor Michael Hancock declined to attend at the last minute, citing concern that his presence would create a “disruptive atmosphere”), Denver's Road Home Executive Director Bennie Milliner revealed that only two people have come to the facility at Glenarm Place — one to retrieve possessions and the other to store more items.

At the meeting, Milliner wondered aloud whether the reason just two people have been to the facility, despite fliers being distributed and signs having been posted along Park Avenue with its address, is because most of the possessions weren't worth that much to the homeless to begin with.

This characterization drew criticism from Tom Luehrs, executive director of the St. Francis Center, who pointed out that a more likely reason that the possessions remain unclaimed is that it is difficult for many homeless individuals to transport their accumulated belongings across the city.

Moreover, those who show up at the Glenarm location to claim their possessions must first produce an itemized list at the front door that describes what was taken. Part of the reason the items are being kept in opaque trash cans is because the city doesn't want individuals to be able to see the possessions of others and then surreptitiously claim them as their own.

Police officers and public works employees worked with homeless individuals during the March 8 sweeps to catalogue their belongings, Smith adds, in one case spending over two hours with a single person to document what was being taken. This produced a number of printed receipts that homeless individuals could bring to the Glenarm facility to retrieve their items.

But Terese Howard of Denver Homeless Out Loud claims that not everyone who had items confiscated was issued a receipt. Those who lack printed documentation must remember, and be able to describe, exactly what was taken from them in order to retrieve those items — and that's a concern, given that some homeless individuals face mental illnesses that might prevent them from effectively communicating what they lost.

On Friday March 25, Howard went to the facility with a homeless man named Thomas who was unable to retrieve a bag that was taken from him because he couldn't describe all of the markings on a blanket inside the bag. Denver Homeless Out Loud put together this video showing the encounter:

Of additional concern are ID cards that were found among the confiscated items, including driver's licenses and Social Security cards. For some homeless services and shelters in Denver, photo ID is required upon entry to receive assistance. Smith says that the city is hoping the rightful owners of these documents will come forward and collect them soon.