Lawson introduced himself to whoever was on the other side of the tent flap, and said he was checking in to see if there was anything that the people living in the encampment could use.
After a few minutes, a young man named Jesse emerged from the tent to talk with Lawson, who was clad in a black-and-gray American flag mask gaiter and a Rockies hat.
Lawson pitched several ideas to Jesse, including the possibility of sleeping in a shelter that night or working with clinicians to contact family members to see if reunification might be possible. Eventually, the young man decided to take Lawson up on that offer. So Lawson called the city's Support Team Assistance Response truck, which pairs a mental-health worker with a paramedic; the STAR team soon came to pick up Jesse and take him to a crisis center, where he could work with staff to contact out-of-state relatives.
"I felt really good about the interaction and feel good that we were able to help him take the next step to bettering his situation," says Lawson. "I’m proud of Jesse, because he had the courage to discuss his struggles and his situation, and he was willing to listen to and consider the options we were sharing with him."
The Human Services workers are part of the Early Intervention Team, a new city initiative. For the past month, team members have been visiting encampments that have just popped up, usually gatherings of five tents or fewer, with the goal of nipping them in the bud before they grow larger.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic descended on Colorado in March, homeless encampments in Denver have increased in both number and size. This past summer, encampments grew to massive sizes in Lincoln Park in front of the Capitol and around Morey Middle School in Capitol Hill, eventually leading to sweeps by Denver police and other city employees and contractors.
Despite protests and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines advising municipalities not to perform sweeps so as not to further spread COVID-19, the city has continued to clear encampments. Denver is currently facing a federal lawsuit over these sweeps during the pandemic.
And encampments have continued to pop up throughout the city.
In September, during a series of meetings with his chief of staff, Alan Salazar, and Murphy Robinson, the executive director of Public Safety, Mayor Michael Hancock expressed his belief that the city needed to get innovative in the way it was dealing with encampments.
"I want to make sure we have alternative responses other than just going to these large encampments. We have to be able to meet folks where they’re at with services to meet their needs and before small encampments turn into larger ones," Robinson recalls the mayor saying.
With that mandate, Robinson tapped Armando Saldate to oversee a team that would focus on this challenge. Saldate, a former Phoenix cop and onetime FBI agent who tracked financial transactions of terrorist organizations, had been with the Denver Department of Public Safety for two and a half years; prior to that, Saldate worked on internal affairs and data-science issues in the Denver Sheriff Department.
Saldate issued calls for city employees to volunteer to be part of the new program; some specialists were assigned. Lawson, for example, came to the team as the lead for the Human Services component; he'd previously worked on child-welfare issues. The budget for the project came from a reallocation of resources from other departments, too.
The Early Intervention Team was launched at the end of October, following two weeks of training that included a session on how to ease into a discussion with those living in encampments from Chris Conner, director of homelessness resolution at the Department of Housing Stability, which coordinates the city's work on homelessness issues.
The initial focus has been in District 6 of the Denver Police Department, which includes such neighborhoods as Capitol Hill, the Golden Triangle, LoDo and Five Points. During business hours on weekdays, between fifteen and twenty city employees assigned to the Early Intervention Team from the departments of Public Safety, Human Services, Fire and the DPD, as well as some substance-abuse navigators from Denver Health, hit the streets. They split into four or five sub-units and head out in unmarked Toyota Priuses to visit small encampments.
The team takes a largely non-enforcement approach, trying to connect with those staying there and directing them toward services and more stable living conditions.
During the first month of operation, the team hasn't had a lot of success getting individuals to agree to help. Some people aren't interested in chatting. Or if they want to chat, they're not interested in services at the moment, says Saldate.
But they keep trying. No one expected this to be easy.
On that cold Tuesday, Lawson and other members of the Early Intervention Team visited another encampment at Acoma Street and Fifth Avenue. There were around seven tents at the location, an increase from the two spotted there just three weeks earlier.
Lawson spent over twenty minutes talking with a middle-aged man named Damion who was staying in a tent. As he had with Jesse, Lawson told Damion about the option of staying in a shelter. But most of the conversation was casual, as the two passionately debated who was greater, LeBron James or Michael Jordan.
Damion ended up staying at the encampment, declining the proposed offering of shelter for the night.
Lawson plans to follow up with Damion over the next few days. "Building that relationship comes down to multiple things. It comes down to talking to people, getting to know them, listening to their stories, listening to their situations, and helping where you can and are invited to help," he says. "It comes down to following through with what you say you’re going to do. It’s not always easy for someone to talk to us right off the bat. We have to follow through with what we say we’re going to do. I try to find ways to connect with people because I genuinely care about them and want them to be successful."
But he also knows that the man might be moving on soon, since DPD officers had gone to the encampment the night before he visited and told its residents that they would have to clear out.
That's the "current policy landscape" that the team needs to work within, says Conner, who's continued advising its members since he provided initial training with the Department of Housing Stability.
"An outreach worker can’t issue a lawful order," he notes, "but lawful orders are going to be made around encampments, so it's important being there, adding a presence there where it’s like, 'I’m not here telling you what to do. I’m not here being the boss and telling you that you have to move. I’m here to tell you that we need a plan here, and being resourceful as I can be to help contemplate what that plan can be for you.'"
Some of the smaller encampments visited by the Early Intervention Team pop up after sweeps of large encampments. The day before the Early Intervention Team visited the sites by Denver Health, the City of Denver had swept a large homeless encampment in RiNo.
"We are going to see displacement from that location," Saldate says.
The Early Intervention Team isn't involved in sweeps. Instead, as the name implies, it takes an earlier, easier approach. "We don't touch anything," Saldate notes. "Something that might look like trash could be treasure to someone else."
Even as the city launched the Early Intervention Team, some nonprofit service providers have been pushing for sustained outreach at large encampments.
"The hope is that we can build up some rapport with these larger encampments and move people into housing and other spaces more quickly because we're not the city," says Cathy Alderman of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, which is partnering with Urban Peak and the St. Francis Center on the effort.
Still, she appreciates the softer, non-enforcement actions of the city's Early Intervention Team. "I think that's great if they're taking that approach," Alderman says.
But she also hadn't heard about the team during its first month of operation. Saldate, Robinson and other city leaders were so focused on getting the program up and running that they hadn't made a concerted effort to share the plan with all of the other entities in the city working with the homeless, Saldate says.
"That has been one of the deficiencies in the standing up of this, and then just the day-to-day operations of this. It’s something that we’ve talked about," he admits. Another thing they've talked about: Whether the team's ties to Public Safety might affect its effectiveness.
"People's concern in these encampments is often the distrust that they have of the city because the city has moved them around so much," Alderman explains. "To the extent that we can collaborate, it's great. But it's also important for us to have an independent entity so it doesn't appear like we're an arm of the city."
Saldate hopes that as the Early Intervention Team continues with its mission, others will come around.
"People equate us with enforcement, and I always have to overcome that," he says. "Even with Chris Conner, there was reticence about us being involved. I’m hoping to do my best to overcome that. It doesn’t matter what city department is leading that effort. Safety is the one that got involved and stepped up."
Robinson points out that he was "the chief operating officer for the mayor before I was Public Safety director. The mayor knows that when I get a project, I get it done. It is not a fully Public Safety entity. The Public Safety personnel help run it. But it is a citywide entity that has the capability of enforcement as a last resort but is really focused on service providing. Most of the team members are not people who would do any enforcement."
Saldate plans to reach out to service providers in the coming month to explain the team's purpose and methods. Conner says he'll be drilling down in January on how to best coordinate between the various city agencies and service providers that are all working on resolving homelessness issues.
"I think we hear a lot from protest voices that the city is an enemy or that people don’t want to talk to the city, but when I’m in the encampment environment, and whether it’s a park ranger or employee from the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure or whether it’s an officer, we’re not hearing that folks won’t engage with them or won’t be forthcoming with what their needs are," Conner explains. "In some ways, they’re not getting the credit for the ways that they are able to engage."
Saldate and others on his team recognize that not everyone is suited for shelters. For example, couples can't enter a shelter together; dog owners have to split up with their pets. Others are worried about being indoors during the pandemic. That's why Saldate is feeling optimistic about one of the ways the city is altering its approach to homelessness during the pandemic.
"We need a safe outdoor space. We need a large one," says Saldate. "When we have safe outdoor spaces, we can see how effective my team might be in addressing these small encampments."
Service providers plan to open Denver's first safe-outdoor space on December 7. The facility, located in a parking lot next to the First Baptist Church on Grant Street at East 14th Avenue, will serve up to thirty women and trans individuals. It will have sinks and toilets, with access to services on site. There will also be periodic trash pick-up, visits by a mobile shower truck, and 24/7 staffing.
Saldate thinks that his team could even set up a program on the site for people who need IDs, one of their biggest obstacles to accessing services.
A second safe-camping site, with a capacity for forty people, both men and women, will be coming online later this month in a parking lot outside the Denver Community Church at East 16th Avenue and Pearl Street.
And Saldate hopes that more will follow. "Safe outdoor spaces will concentrate our ability to deliver services," he says.