Forty individuals camped out along Denargo Street in north Denver were made to move their tents and belongings on Thursday morning, January 26.
The sweep, which was carried out by Department of Public Works employees and enforced by the Denver Police Department, is the latest in a string of encampment cleanups that have occurred regularly since March 2016. But Thursday's sweep lacked the derision and protest that characterized some of the earlier actions. There were no protesters, and DPD officers weren't issuing citations or looking into outstanding warrants.
In the past, some sweeps were carried out at odd hours of the night, included military-style operation code names like "Night Crawler," and included claims by individuals experiencing homelessness that their belongings were trashed or taken from them without a reasonable way to retrieve them.
The actions have proved controversial for Mayor Michael Hancock's administration, landing Denver in federal court to defend itself against nine plaintiffs who claim that the sweeps violated their Fourth Amendment protections against unlawful searches and seizures. In December, Westword profiled the attorney who is representing the plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit.
On Thursday, police cordoned off the east shoulder of the street with yellow tape as Public Works employees worked with campers to identify and document their belongings. The items will be taken to a city-run storage facility at 2100 West 31st Street and will be available for retrieval for the next sixty days.
“There are two categories of items,” explained mayoral spokeswoman Amber Miller, who was on the scene. “If [the items] look like they're of value to people and they're unidentified, then people are allowed to come and grab those. Then there are individuals who want to put their names on a storage bin that we have for them to use at our storage unit.”
Westword observed Public Works employees writing down itemized reports of what was being put into storage bins. Miller confirmed that receipts would be distributed to campers so that they can retrieve their items. For unaccompanied items, she added, if there is any question concerning their value, city employees would assume the property has value and it should be collected and stored.
The sweep was carried out after signs were posted along the shoulder of Denargo Street stating that the area was closed to trespassers. Miller says that the area is public land.
Bob McDonald, executive director of Denver's Department of Environmental Health, explained the reasoning behind Thursday's sweep. “Clearly, looking at this situation, this is not a healthy condition to live in,” he said. “As I walk through here, I see a number of hazardous situations, from broken glass to needles to signs that people are urinating and defecating out here. Just living in tents like this, things like respiratory and gastrointestinal diseases can spread very easily from one person to another, simply because there's no way for people to practice good personal hygiene ... Blood-borne pathogens are very easy to spread in situations like this, either by being cut by something or stepping on a needle. I can go on and on with all the types of diseases that can spread in this kind of situation. It's much easier to control in many of the shelters that are spread throughout the city.
“The city has resources to help these people, and we encourage them to take advantage of it,” he added. “Our efforts are to get them in a situation where it's better for them, too.”
But Miller highlighted one challenge with encampment cleanups: Not everyone wants to use shelters.
“What we're seeing is many of the same individuals going from one place to the next,” she observed.
Many of those camped along Denargo had been displaced during sweeps along Lawrence Street and Broadway in late November.
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Among them was Ian Moore, who has lived in the Denargo encampment off and on during the past two months. Moore says that many in the encampment consider it a community and don't want to check in to shelters. “We stick together, and we're a family,” he said.
Moore confirmed claims by the city that outreach workers and Public Works employees have been by the encampment regularly during the past month. The advanced notice was one reason that Thursday morning's sweep appeared to be less chaotic than some in the past.
“The outreach has been significant,” says Miller. “We can safely say that, since the beginning of the year, we've been out here every day.”