In a scathing letter to Mayor Michael Hancock, an advocacy group of influential Denver residents are calling on his administration to end homeless encampment sweeps.
"We are all really appalled by the sweeps," says Jami Duffy, co-chair and co-founder of All In Denver, a nonprofit group whose goal is to make Denver "a more equitable city." All In Denver is "genuinely dumbfounded" that Hancock has not stopped the sweeps, she adds: "We can’t think of a good reason. He hasn’t given a good reason."
On December 16, All In Denver sent an open letter to Hancock, expressing the concern of boardmembers — Hancock allies and critics alike from a range of professions, including consultants, developers and homeless service providers.
"If we didn’t have diverse viewpoints on the board, it would just be going back to our echo chamber," explains Duffy, who notes that the board "unanimously agreed on this letter and on this position."
Besides calling for an immediate end to homeless encampment sweeps, the All In Denver letter asks for the Denver auditor to assess the cost of sweeps and balance that against what it would cost to provide temporary housing instead. The letter also requests the "reallocation of city funding and new sales tax revenues to support safe outdoor spaces, tiny home villages, and other safe, accessible alternatives to exposure, while providing our unhoused community members with the dignity of choice in their housing options."
Explains Duffy: "You can’t sweep the sweeps under the rug. They’re happening, they’re talked about nationally. It is a defining policy of this city, and I just can’t imagine that this is what Mayor Hancock wants his legacy to be, especially given how he’s approached other areas. There are accomplishments in his administration that maybe go unnoticed. He’s done a lot internally around the city of Denver around diversity and equity and trainings. He has a lot of things that he can walk away after twelve years and be extremely proud of. I think we are wondering as an organization how he is justifying this and why he would want this to be part of his personal legacy."
Soon after he was elected mayor, Hancock signed the urban camping ban into law in 2012. Since then, his administration has used that law and other regulations related to the public right-of-way and public health to justify sweeping encampments both large and small. Still, the city has been hit with multiple lawsuits over encampment sweeps, including one that resulted in a September 2019 settlement governing how much time Denver must give to encampment residents before conducting certain large-scale sweeps.
Asked for a response to the All In Denver letter, the mayor's office sent this statement: "We are deeply appreciative of All In Denver’s partnership over the years, including their involvement with the creation and doubling of the city’s affordable housing fund and the establishment last month of a dedicated funding stream to address homelessness. We also recognize the vast majority of Denver voters who strongly support the city’s prohibition on urban camping. We have a responsibility to protect the public health and safety of people living in and near encampments. When the risks and hazards posed by encampments become significant, we have an obligation to clean and close them. With a half-dozen different outreach teams on the streets, the city is working tirelessly to connect our unhoused neighbors to services, shelter, housing, relatives, treatment, and mental-health and medical care. We successfully house hundreds of people a year — and we prevent thousands more from becoming homeless in the first place. With two tiny home villages and two managed campsites now up and running, we are committed to finding even more alternatives to living unsheltered on the streets."
At the beginning of the pandemic, as the homeless population was growing — a Point in Time survey conducted in January showed that there were close to 1,000 homeless individuals living in unsheltered settings in Denver — and city officials opted to largely halt encampment sweeps. This kept Denver in line with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, which recommend that municipalities not sweep encampments unless adequate individual housing is available, so as not to further the spread of COVID-19.
After a few months, however, the city restarted sweeps and dispersed several large encampments in the Capitol Hill area over the summer; in recent weeks, the city appears to have been accelerating sweeps in other neighborhoods. This acceleration comes just as service providers have opened Denver's first two safe-camping sites for those experiencing homelessness.
In October, the City of Denver was hit with a lawsuit filed by Denver Homeless Out Loud and ten homeless plaintiffs over sweeps during the pandemic; that complaint argues that the sweeps go against CDC guidance. On December 15 and 16, the City of Denver as well as the State of Colorado, which is also a named defendant in the case, argued with the plaintiffs in the U.S. District Court of Colorado during an evidentiary hearing. That hearing has spilled into a third day, which will be scheduled in early 2021.
In the meantime, the All In Denver board has rendered its own verdict on the sweeps. "I don’t think there’s any escaping this legacy of a policy that neither works nor is humane or compassionate," says Duffy.
Read the All In Denver letter here: