The City of Denver is hiring members of a civil enforcement team that will have the power to issue citations to people experiencing homelessness.
"The Street Enforcement Team Member will enhance public safety through proactive patrols and enforcement of ordinances. Members will deliver exceptional customer service in their community contacts. Members will be trained in crisis intervention and de-escalation techniques," reads a listing for the job, which will pay between $18.94 and $28.41 an hour.
"The Street Enforcement Team is going to be a civilian-based team, meaning they’re going to be unarmed, much in the model of a park ranger," explains Armando Saldate, who's with the city's Department of Public Safety. Saldate has been interviewing candidates for the six-person team, which he hopes to get up and running by late August or early September.
The team will be headed by Scott Lawson, an outreach worker with Denver Human Services who's currently part of Denver's Early Intervention Team, which Saldate formed last fall as a way to deal with homeless encampments as they're starting, to prevent them from growing larger by suggesting options and services to residents.
Over the past year, Denver has been expanding its programs for dealing with encampments. The city is now transitioning the Early Intervention Team — designed to be a non-enforcement, outreach-focused entity — into the Department of Public Health and Environment from its current place in the Department of Public Safety. The separate Street Enforcement Team, which will be based in Public Safety, will also concentrate on nipping encampments in the bud, but it will have more enforcement teeth.
Members of the Street Enforcement Team will have the authority to issue citations for various violations of Denver law, such as unauthorized camping, trespassing, public urination, and obstruction of streets and other public passageways. Some of the applicants already have related backgrounds, Saldate notes, such as park ranger work or right-of-way enforcement.
In March, the city started centralizing all calls related to complaints about homeless encampments through 311 rather than sending them to the Denver Police Department, which often wound up on the other end of calls about encampments that did not involve crimes. Those kinds of complaints will now go to the Street Enforcement Team and the Early Intervention Team. When complaints involve larger encampments and potential crimes, the DPD will still be involved in law enforcement, notes Saldate, a former police officer himself.
The Street Enforcement Team is being brought on board because 311 complaints have become more aggressive in recent months, Saldate says. "Now the tone has been, 'I've been living with this for months, you haven't done anything as a city, I'm sick of this.' There has been some of 'I'll take matter into my own hands,' those vague kind of things," he explains. "We also have neighbors turning on sprinklers or spraying hoses on people starting camps."
Those who are selected for the team will go through training with several city agencies, including the Denver City Attorney's Office, so that the members understand the limits of what they can do at an encampment. Right now, a federal court order is in place that requires that the city give seven days' notice before conducting a sweep. Team members will also get training from Denver's Department of Housing Stability on how to interact with people experiencing homelessness, so that they can communicate effectively and de-escalate potentially volatile situations, Saldate says; enforcement will be a last resort.
Even so, some homeless-rights advocates are worried about this new initiative. "I think it’s going to be very unproductive. I think it’s going to be destructive," says Benjamin Dunning, an organizer with Denver Homeless Out Loud. Since the city and service providers already have ways they can engage with encampments, the Street Outreach Team is just "another show of force by the mayor's office," he adds. "I see it as just the city looking for every different excuse to try to enter encampments, disperse them, and try to hide poverty."
City officials estimate that up to 1,500 people are currently experiencing unsheltered homelessness in Denver.
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