The action, which is scheduled for April 30, is being authorized under laws prohibiting obstructions in the public right-of-way and will help address "deteriorating public health and safety conditions," according to city officials.
"We are seeing the area become increasingly hazardous, in addition to encumbering the public right-of-way, and want to keep everyone safe. Our ask is for people to move so that we can thoroughly clean," says Nancy Kuhn, a spokesperson for the Denver Department of Transportation and Infrastructure. City employees will store unclaimed personal items that are considered non-hazardous for up to sixty days.
The area being cleaned spans twelve square blocks between 20th and 23rd and Welton and Curtis streets, where many tents and camps have appeared in recent weeks — many much closer together than the six feet urged for social distancing.
Still, the decision to sweep this area contrasts with city policy during the pandemic so far, according to Terese Howard of Denver Homeless Out Loud.
"By and large, they have been not doing major sweeps over the past month. This has been a huge benefit for folks on the street. They have been able to stabilize a bit, not get scattered and constantly pushed from place to place," Howard says. She counted 95 tents in the area on April 23, the day that city staffers posted notices notifying the public about the upcoming sweep.
Many of these tents are located near homeless service providers, including the Stout Street Health Center, which is currently testing people experiencing homelessness for COVID-19. Howard also points out that tents in that vicinity are largely located in front of parking lots or near abandoned buildings. This part of town has been largely empty since Mayor Michael Hancock issued the stay-at-home order on March 23.
"Contrary to popular belief, people who are living outside typically try to do so in the least disruptive ways possible," Howard says. "People are not typically setting up in front of people's houses or right in front of apartment complexes or open businesses or heavily active areas. In fact, she adds, when mass sweeps like the one planned for April 30 happened in the past, those displaced actually wound up moving into more residential areas "where neighbors are already complaining about not wanting to see poor people."
While city officials are citing an ordinance about clearing up the public right-of-way in justifying the action, Denver still has the unauthorized camping ordinance, also known as the camping ban, on the books.
"Our number-one goal is to get people into shelter," Hancock told Westword in mid-March, when asked whether the city would be enforcing the camping ban during the COVID-19 pandemic. "It doesn’t help for you to be sick on the street."
In recent weeks, homeless service providers and city officials have banded together to create two large homeless shelters, one for men at the National Western Center and one for women at the Denver Coliseum. With these shelters open, guests have significantly more room to socially distance from each other, service providers contend. Additionally, clinicians from the Stout Street Health Center, which is run by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, have been able to test people for COVID-19 at the two temporary facilities.
"We recognize some of the public health and safety concerns they are hoping to address, but without providing alternative spaces/options and services, it's not productive and could be more harmful to the population," says Cathy Alderman, a spokesperson for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. "We'd prefer that the city continue to work with us on long-term solutions to get these folks housed."
So far, the Stout Street Health Center has tested a total of 409 homeless individuals for COVID-19. Eighty-seven of those tests have come back positive, while 22 individuals are awaiting their test results while self-quarantining in motel rooms.