Determining that Denver needed to change its approach to homelessness, last year Mayor Michael Hancock's administration
formed the Street Enforcement Team, a civil unit authorized to enforce laws commonly associated with unsheltered homelessness, such as the camping ban.
"The public is demanding enforcement regarding encampments. Business owners are asking for increased enforcement," Armando Saldate, the assistant deputy executive director of Public Safety
who created the plan, said in July 2021. (He's now executive director of the department.) Team members would be "unarmed" and "in the model of a park ranger," he added. "We heard from critics that having police officers at cleanups, having police officers at encampments, was traumatic for the unhoused community."
But over a year later, some advocates for the unhoused as well as individuals living on the streets are still skeptical of the Street Enforcement Team, and wonder if there's really any difference between the eight SET members and police officers.
"I think if the intention were to provide meaningful outreach, then the messengers would not be people whose primary task is enforcement," says Annie Kurtz of the ACLU of Colorado.
Amy Beck, a homeless-rights advocate, says she's witnessed SET members at work, and has seen their effect on people living on the streets. "They are getting harassed on the daily, and they’re tired, and they can’t go about their normal life because they’re constantly in crisis," she says. "A lot of folks are experiencing that crisis fatigue right now, and I see that SET is definitely contributing to that for folks."
From September 2021 through the start of this month, the Street Enforcement Team conducted "outreach" to a total of 3,410 tents and RVs, according to Kelly Jacobs, director of communications for the Department of Public Safety. "Outreach means that an individual is contacted by the Street Enforcement Team. This always includes the team offering services or resources, and may also include the team educating an individual on ordinances, assisting with getting that individual supplies or into shelters in extreme weather, or a welfare check," explains Jacobs.
During that first year of operations, SET members notified people of existing ordinances, such as the camping ban, at 1,725 locations, some of which may have been duplicates that were visited multiple times. These were essentially oral warnings about potential ordinance violations.
"No written warnings or citations have been issued to date," Jacobs notes. And SET also assisted 396 people "who accepted help with accessing resources" during this time frame, she adds.
"I am proud of the work the Street Enforcement Team does each day. While they act in an enforcement capacity, the heart of the work that they do now is creating and building relationships to support individuals living with complex conditions through thoughtful dialogues, connection to resources, and education," says Jeff Holliday, chief of staff at the Department of Public Safety.
But the dual nature of the Street Enforcement Team — enforcement while also offering services — has created confusion, too.
Toward the end of the summer, 44-year-old Courtney Reed was staying in an encampment by South Kalamath Street and West Bayaud Avenue when she was approached by SET members. "It was all very confusing about who was coming, why they were there. They didn’t really identify themselves. They just said, 'We’re here because we come to help you guys before [the cops] come,'" Reed recalls. "I said, 'What kind of help are you guys going to provide?' They didn’t know. They literally don’t even know what their own jobs are. I don’t know what their jobs are. It seemed to me that their jobs were to gather information for the police."
Two days later, the City of Denver swept the encampment. "The cops don’t need little narcs," Reed says.
"These are not social workers. This team is there to enforce with a soft touch and not being police," says Terese Howard with the Housekeys Action Network Denver
. "They were never intended to help people. [The team] is very productive if the goal is just to push people around and harass people to the point of desperation."
Kurtz and other civil rights attorneys have been closely monitoring the team's work. "It has felt, from the beginning, that SET is an attempt to avoid an optics problem for Denver," Kurtz says. "There's no evidence-based authority that says policing is a good solution to homelessness. All of the authorities say the opposite."
Adding to the confusion is the fact that Denver has a handful of entities with "team" in their name that all interface with people experiencing homelessness. Since 2007, the Denver Police Department
has had a Homeless Outreach Team, composed of officers who specialize in interacting with homeless individuals. Early in the pandemic, Denver also formed an Early Intervention Team, with non-law enforcement city employees visiting budding encampments to offer services, in an attempt to keep them from growing. The EIT, which is based in the Department of Housing Stability (HOST), is not focused on enforcement, either.
The EIT visits encampments before the Street Enforcement Team is sent out, according to city officials. But so does the Denver Street Outreach Collaborative, a team of service workers from various homeless provider organizations that tends to focus on areas in and around downtown and also heads to especially large encampments. The EIT, meanwhile, responds to Pocketgov Denver and 311 reports from community members about people experiencing unsheltered homelessness and smaller encampments. Depending on the situation, the SET might follow.
Holliday contends that the SET's "first priority is finding the right resource or support mechanism for them," and that the "overwhelming feedback the team receives is that the individual is thankful for their respectful approach and conversations in addition to their offer for resources."
"We have a close and productive working relationship with SET," says Cathy Alderman, the chief communications and public-policy officer with the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.
But there are definitely exceptions to those positive responses. "They roll up like they’re the police. They refuse to tell anybody what their purpose is. All they want to do is collect information and go," says Shane, a 45-year-old who was recently released on parole from prison and is now living without a home in Denver (he asked that his last name not be used because of his parole status).
In recent weeks, Shane has had multiple interactions with the Street Enforcement Team that now have him feeling paranoid about dealing with actual service workers, too.
"I had someone from HOST approach me the other day," Shane says of the EIT team. "I told him, 'Check this out, man. It sounds good what you’re selling, because right now, I don’t care, build a pallet on the side of the road, I’ll live there.' Because I just stayed up all night freezing my ass off just to go to court in Arapahoe County. I’ll live anywhere, bro. I told him, 'I can’t give you my information, bro, because I don’t know because of the SET team.'"
SET team members are only allowed to share information with police "if an individual is making threats and the team has that individual’s name and location," according to Jacobs.
"The Department of Safety understands the sensitivity around an individual’s information and has deliberately designed the team in a way so that any necessary information for accessing resources is collected separately from law enforcement databases," she continues. "The team does collect information when someone expresses interest in a specific service, and that information is only shared with the resource or service provider directly so they can get in contact with the individual. These individuals can be assured that their personal information is not being shared with police and that the team’s intent is to provide access to resources and services."
But Kurtz wonders if SET is hurting rather than helping. "It's no better than sending the police out," she says, "and maybe it's even worse if they're not required to do the same kind of training and have the same ethical responsibilities."