Homeless Sweeps: City Paid Contractor Nearly $400,000 to Assist in Cleanups

A homeless sweep on October 29.
A homeless sweep on October 29. Chris Walker
The City of Denver has paid a private contractor nearly $400,000 to assist in homeless sweeps since September 2017. Employees of Custom Environmental Services were often seen alongside police officers and Denver Public Works employees during homeless encampment cleanups — especially around the Denver Rescue Mission in the Ballpark neighborhood and along the South Platte River — but the payments were only revealed recently through an open-records request filed by the independent media group Unicorn Riot.

Emails obtained under the Colorado Open Records Act, then posted to the open-records website MuckRock, show itemized receipts from Custom Environmental Services spanning from September 2017 to September 2018 for things like “mobilize to site to continue clean-up” and “mobilize to storage facility for homeless to claim belongings.” The storage facility is a city-owned building near the South Platte River that stores items taken during cleanups for thirty days so that owners can retrieve them.

click to enlarge
Public Works and Custom Environmental Services employees storing items in recycling bins during a homeless sweep in November 2016.
Brandon Marshall
Homeless sweeps in Denver are contentious, with naysayers arguing that displacing the homeless by taking their possessions is immoral, impractical and may run afield of protections guaranteed by the Constitution, including due process and protections against unlawful searches and seizures. Denver's large encampment cleanups are even the subject of a federal class action lawsuit that is scheduled to begin in March 2019. The judge in that case, William Martinez, has defined homeless sweeps as “'the City and County of Denver’s alleged custom or practice (written or unwritten) of sending ten or more employees or agents to clear away an encampment of multiple homeless persons by immediately seizing and discarding the property found there.'”

It is unclear how much money the city spends on using Denver Public Works employees and Denver Police officers for homeless sweeps (records custodians say they don't have that information), but the receipts detailing hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments to Custom Environmental Services offer a glimpse into the cost of dismantling homeless encampments.

click to enlarge
A homeless sweep on October 29.
Chris Walker
Asked for comment — and for more information on the receipts — Denver Public Works spokeswoman Nancy Kuhn told Westword in an email, “I can confirm that Denver Public Works responded to an open records request from MuckRock in September 2018, providing them with a year’s worth of invoices from Custom Environmental Services that totaled just under $400,000. I think the [Unicorn Riot] story mischaracterized this work when it stated 'DPW and Custom Environmental Services become engaged when there are dozens of people in one area that the city wants to evict.' In fact, Denver Public Works has a cleanup crew downtown Monday through Friday dedicated to maintaining the health and safety of the public right of way and the contractor assists. Each day we collect and dispose of litter, food waste and any hazards we may find such as needles on the sidewalk and in the curb line of the street. We store unattended items that do not pose a public health or safety risk. Our contractor inventories the unattended items and notes the location of where they were collected and the date. We keep the items for at least 30 days. If people are present with their personal items, we ask them to move to an area that isn’t in the process of being cleaned."

Kuhn also confirmed that Denver has been working with a new contractor, Environmental Hazmat Services, which has replaced Custom Environmental Services, to assist in homeless cleanups after it won a city contract in October. The new company did not respond to Westword's requests for details of its contract, but its website lists “Homeless Encampment Cleanup” as a main area of expertise.

Environmental Hazmat Services would have been on hand for the latest series of sweeps that began in the Ballpark Neighborhood on October 29, when more than 200 tent campers were displaced. Kuhn told Westword that as of December 21, the city was storing forty recycling bins' worth of personal items obtained from recent cleanups.

“Retrieval rates vary,” she added. “We had four people come by in the last month (one of those people stopped by twice); most frequently, we see the people who voluntarily store items with the city and have claim checks for retrieval. We pay the contractor to staff the storage site two hours a day, Monday through Friday, so the amount of items in storage is less related to their pay than the fact they are staffing the site so people can pick up their items.”
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Chris Walker is a freelancer and former staff writer at Westword. Before moving to the Mile High City he spent two years bicycling across Eurasia, during which he wrote feature stories for VICE, NPR, Forbes, and The Atlantic. Read more of Chris's feature work and view his portfolio here.
Contact: Chris Walker