New Message to the Mayor Takes Aim at Hancock Over Homeless Sweeps

Denver has swept dozens of encampments in 2021.
Denver has swept dozens of encampments in 2021. Michael Emery Hecker
As the action around Major League Baseball's All-Star Game draws attention to Denver, homeless-rights advocates are putting a spotlight on the Hancock administration's practice of sweeping homeless encampments.
"We thought this was the perfect time to give the mayor our message," says John Staughton, who wrote and directed Message to the Mayor Part 2, a film focused on Denver's encampment sweeps.

On the evening of July 11, Staughton and Jared Sullivan, who filmed and edited the documentary, screened Message to the Mayor, Part 2 in a parking lot at the intersection of California Street and Park Avenue, just a half-dozen blocks from Coors Field, before a few dozen people sitting in camping chairs and on blankets.

The film is a continuation of the Message to the Mayor campaign against the sweeps, spearheaded by From Allies to Abolitionists, an outgrowth of Jeff Campbell's Emancipation Theater Company. The campaign had already released a rap song and an accompanying video in January and the first Message to the Mayor documentary in February.

Staughton has attended over fifty sweeps so far this year, always arriving at 5:30 a.m. to catch city workers and contractors setting up fencing before asking those staying in tents to leave, and then throwing out much of what's left behind. The footage he's taken at these sweeps captures the blistering cold during the winter months, as well as the anti-homeless landscaping set up on the ground after sweeps. The filmmakers also interviewed people who have gone through the sweeps and describe the difficulties of constantly having to move.

"It was a message to the mayor," Sullivan says of the film, which he hopes will persuade residents to become more active in advocating for people experiencing homelessness. "It was also a call to action to the community."

In 2012, Mayor Michael Hancock signed an urban camping ban into law. Since then, the city has used that controversial law as well as other ordinances related to public right-of-way and public health and safety to disperse encampments. The sweeps have been the subject of multiple legal challenges; the U.S. District Court of Colorado currently has an order in place mandating that the city provide at least a week's notice before conducting sweeps.

With the All-Star Game and related activities in Denver this week, service providers and advocates have claimed that the city is accelerating its sweeps of encampments near Coors Field and other downtown areas. During a June 30 press conference, however, Hancock said that the increased sweeps are "not connected to the All-Star Game," noting that Denver has "more encampments" right now, which explains why the city has been performing "more cleanups."

Prior to the screening of Message to the Mayor Part 2, homeless advocates cleaned up trash that had accumulated in nearby encampments. Ean Tafoya, a prominent Denver activist and environmental advocate, brought out the water truck that his group, Headwater Protectors, has used to provide "compassionate water and trash service" on a weekly basis over the past year in Benedict Fountain Park at the edge of downtown.

"The sweeps are so goddamn traumatic," Tafoya said just before the screening began.

Near the makeshift screening area were a scattering of tents set up by people sheltering outside...not far from the rocks and fences set up to keep homeless encampments off the grass.
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.