The City of Denver will begin notifying members of city council of upcoming cleanups of homeless encampments taking place in their district, an initiative championed by Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca.
As part of the agreement that settled a long-fought class-action lawsuit in September, the city agreed to a number of steps intended to ensure due process for people living on the streets in violation of Denver’s camping ban. Among those is that the city must post a notice seven days before conducting a “large-scale encumbrance removal or cleanup” (also referred to as a sweep). Michael Strott, a spokesperson for the mayor's office, confirmed that the city attorney’s office now sends councilmembers a copy of these notifications when they are posted.
During sweeps, homeless people must pack up so the Department of Public Works can clean the area. Police often simultaneously enforce the camping ban, pushing them to “move along” out of the area. In the lawsuit, attorney Jason Flores-Williams argued that the city had been violating homeless peoples' rights by seizing their property without a warrant or previous notice, sometimes including vital items such as sleeping bags and blankets.
The settlement didn’t stipulate that the elected officials should be notified about an upcoming cleanup along with the people who live there. But CdeBaca wants to know.
Without knowing when and where a cleanup will occur, she says, "there’s no way for us to be proactive in dealing with the complaints that will come in or deploy people who are trying to provide direct services and support. ... Right now we don’t know what’s going on. When [a cleanup] happens, we get one-sided stories, and we don’t know quite what the truth is. It’s a way for us to eliminate the middle person and the potential for confusion."
CdeBaca's office often hears about sweeps after the fact, and the vast majority occur in her District 9, which encompasses downtown neighborhoods including the Central Business District, LoDo and Union Station. According to Denver Police Department data, from the passage of the camping ban in 2012 to April 2019, over 8,000 of about 13,000 total "street checks" for unauthorized camping have taken place in District 9. Council District 10 (where Civic Center Park is) had the second-highest number of total street checks, at just over 2,000. Street checks don't necessarily indicate that a full-on sweep happened or even that the camping ban was enforced, but it's likely that those larger-scale enforcements happen in the same places.
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Councilmembers won't be able to stop sweeps from happening. But CdeBaca's office argues that the notifications will enable them to understand what's going on and hold the city accountable for violations of the lawsuit.
“We want to be able to have information that’s not reactive, so that we can schedule a staff person to be there and ask questions if we need to ask questions,” says Lisa Calderón, CdeBaca’s chief of staff. Calderón ramped up efforts to press the city about being notified of sweeps after Denver Homeless Out Loud activist Terese Howard was arrested while filming one, a move that CdeBaca calls "wrongful."
Sweeps are notoriously confusing and often chaotic events, even down to the language used to describe them. What the city calls a “large-scale encumbrance removal” describes a “coordinated multi-agency cleanup of a specific, designated area that Public Works has determined cannot be properly cleaned due to the amount of encumbrances and trash found in the designated area through the regular work of our crews,” as Public Works spokesperson Nancy Kuhn wrote in an email to Westword after the lawsuit was settled.
The other agencies involved often include Denver Public Health and Environment, which inspects the area for hazardous materials and health risks, and police, who are supposed to support Public Works as well as enforce the camping ban. The sheriff's department also sends inmates from the county jail to remove trash, a practice that the city is trying to phase out. Flores-Williams had argued that it constituted "using poor people against poor people...[using] those caught in mass incarceration to destroy the property of the destitute.”
Calderón says that ideally she wants more details about upcoming sweeps than a note from city attorneys. "We’ve been pulling teeth to get out every little bit of information from them, even though there’s clearly a chain of communication that happens between multiple agencies that we’re not included in," she says.