"Our city needs to be clean, and right now it isn’t," Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer said prior to the vote. "We need to keep our community safe and clean and our streets clean of dangerous and hazardous material to protect the public health, not at the cost of the dignity of our unhoused residents and not when the job isn't being done well."
Sawyer was one of eleven councilmembers to approve extending the contract through October 2023. Candi CdeBaca and Jamie Torres voted against the extension.
The City of Denver contracted with Wheat Ridge-based Environmental Hazmat Services three years ago, and has paid EHS $1.57 million so far; the contract already allowed for up to $6 million in services. While also responsible for other types of cleanup operations, EHS workers usually are involved with encampment sweeps, dealing with items at the scene — either storing or tossing tents, sleeping bags and other belongings — and then clearing the area.
Before the vote, homeless advocates had encouraged people to lobby for a "no" vote. On September 8, Jared Sullivan, a local filmmaker, published a ten-minute short film on YouTube titled "TRASHED: Why Denver's $6 Million Deal With Environmental Hazmat Services Is Garbage."
"They have a very abusive, almost gang-like culture in the way they act, the way they address unhoused advocates, the way they address unhoused residents," John Staughton said during the public-comment hearing on the extension. Staughton has attended more than 75 sweeps this year, taking photos of the cleanups.
Three people spoke in favor of the contract extension, while nine joined Staughton in testifying against EHS, criticizing the company for hostile practices toward homeless individuals and advocates, as well as pointing out that areas sometimes aren't fully clean for days after a sweep.
"We’re hearing a lot of concerning things. I’ve heard no denials of the incomplete work that has been done. I’ve heard no real denials of the insensitive work that has been done," Councilman Paul Kashmann said during the council meeting.
EHS did not send a representative to the September 13 meeting; the company did not respond to requests for comment, either.
The contract extension includes an amendment that requires sensitivity training led by the Denver Department of Housing Stability for EHS employees involved in homeless encampment sweeps. It also now prohibits EHS employees conducting sweeps from interacting with members of the public on behalf of the city.
"We will not tolerate inappropriate comments or any inappropriate behavior by EHS employees," Will Fenton of the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment said while discussing the extension before council. He noted that the city receives 400 to 500 citizen complaints about encampments per week.
The Denver Department of Transportation and Infrastructure, which can end the contract at any time with cause and with a few weeks' notice without cause, has promised to provide more oversight at areas that are swept, making sure they are fully remediated. And DOTI officials will also look into the storage of belongings that are taken during sweeps, making changes like extending the hours of the facility where they are kept.
"I think a lot of the items around the storage facility need to be revisited, re-thought through," said Margaret Medellin, a deputy manager at DOTI who oversees the Solid Waste Division.
While he voted in favor of the extension, Kashmann implored city officials to look into another option in case EHS's work doesn't improve and the city decides to terminate the contract.
"I don’t want to wait two months or six months while our city gets dirtier and dirtier," Kashmann said.