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During his State of the City speech, Mayor Michael Hancock said encampments "cannot persist."
During his State of the City speech, Mayor Michael Hancock said encampments "cannot persist."
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Mayor Hancock Mum on When Morey Encampment Will Be Swept

Mayor Michael Hancock won't say when Denver plans to disperse a large encampment around Morey Middle School, arguing that telegraphing the action would place city employees in danger.

"We have people who want to put our public health workers, our guiding officials and our law enforcement officers in danger by tipping off folks who want to come in and escalate the situation," Hancock said during a press conference today, July 31, when asked why he wouldn't share details about the coming sweep of the Capitol Hill school.

Despite Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines recommending that municipalities not sweep encampments unless housing is available because of concerns about the potential spread of COVID-19, the city has begun dispersing camps.

"We know what the CDC guidelines say. These are very difficult decisions. We have to find the very complicated opportunity for balance here," Hancock said, adding that various health and safety concerns prompted clearing out encampments around the city.

With the assistance of Colorado State troopers, on July 29 the city swept a tent city that had set up in Lincoln Park in front of the Capitol. The site was the scene of a recent triple shooting that left one dead, and the city said the area had become a public health hazard.

During the sweep, protesters showed up and, at one point, scuffled with Denver police officers.

"We know for a fact that there’s a city council member who is texting and sending out information trying to get people to show up at protests," Hancock said at the press conference. "We know that. And it’s putting everyone at risk and it’s unfortunate, because when people are showing up to do their job and try to help folks, we now create an escalation. I’m not going to mince words: It’s not okay. It’s putting everyone at risk. And it’s not helping anyone when those sorts of things are happening."

Hancock was clearly referring to Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca. The night before the Lincoln Park sweep, CdeBaca had tweeted: "Word on the street is there is a sweep planned for Civic Center tomorrow. Just an FYI, I don't have confirmation but you know sometimes NO confirmation IS confirmation. Stay safe peeps."

In the hours after the sweep, Murphy Robinson, executive director of the Denver Department of Public Safety, told reporters that administration officials were meeting about the encampment outside Morey Middle School and planned on dispersing that camp soon, too. "We plan on looking at Morey and all of the other camps in the city, and making sure that the people in those camps have services and somewhere to go," Robinson said.

The Lincoln Park encampment was swept without its occupants getting a week's notice. But according to the city, urgent health and safety risks justified the action.

"If it’s a general cleaning that’s done by the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure, and they need to move people in order to get that cleaning done, then there is a requirement to post for seven days," Bob McDonald, the executive director for the city's Department of Public Health and Environment, explained at the press conference. "If this department determines that it’s reached that point, any of these encampments, where there’s an imminent public health risk, there is not a requirement to post notice and to move immediately, and that’s what occurred."

While Hancock noted that the city has around 550 empty shelter beds on any given night, many of those living on the streets of Denver prefer a tent to entering the shelter system. And without time to prepare them, service providers say, individuals are unlikely to take them up on an offer of shelter.

"Our outreach teams are asked to go out in preparation of sweeps. That is the least likely time to build trust with people outside," says Cathy Alderman of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, one of the organizations criticizing the recent sweep action. "Getting people inside, the trust relationship is critical. They have to believe that they're not going to be forced inside and have choices and options."

Although the city had buses waiting to transport those staying at Lincoln Park to a shelter, just one person took the city up on its offer.

A primary focus of service providers, which now has the blessing of the mayor, is to get a safe camping site operational. The proposed location of the initial site was the Denver Coliseum parking lot, but that fizzled after the neighborhood opposed it. Now service providers have shifted their focus to state-owned parking lots in Capitol Hill, and sent a letter to Governor Jared Polis asking if he'd offer up state-owned land.

“Yes, we are looking at all of our state properties," replies a spokesperson from Polis's office. "It's too early to determine if we have an available property that would match the needs.”

In the meantime, homeless-rights advocates announced that there could be a sweep of an encampment located around 22nd and Stout streets on the morning of July 30 and encouraged protesters to come out. That sweep never materialized.

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