City of Denver Sweeps 138 Homeless People at La Alma Encampment | Westword
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City Looking for Housing After Sweep of 138 People at La Alma Encampment

Mayor Mike Johnston said he planned to offer housing when the encampment was at forty people, but it grew too fast.
Mayor Mike Johnston spoke about plans to sweep an encampment in the La Alma neighborhood last week.
Mayor Mike Johnston spoke about plans to sweep an encampment in the La Alma neighborhood last week. Bennito L. Kelty

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Despite efforts to get people into housing, Mayor Mike Johnston swept 138 people out of an encampment on Navajo Street under the West Eighth Avenue overpass in the La Alma neighborhood on Tuesday, April 16, with nowhere to put them.

When the city resolves an encampment while housing is available, it closes the location to camping permanently by putting up fencing, says Jose Salas, a spokesperson for the mayor's office. But this site will not be fenced off, and Johnston has said he expects people will come back — at which point the mayor hopes that housing units will be available.

"Closing an encampment without housing is not ideal. It's not what the mayor wants to do moving forward," says Salas. "We want to resolve every encampment with housing."

The city has about 1,300 units of housing at micro-communities and hotels purchased last year for the mayor's House1000 plan, which aimed to get 1,000 people off the streets by the end of 2023. All In Mile High is Johnston's new effort to get another 1,000 indoors by the end of 2024.

Johnston has housed nearly 1,500 people through both plans, according to the city, but most of them are in temporary spots. More than 300 people have been counted by the city as being permanently housed.

Some of the encampment's former residents are also expected to move to new locations, Salas says, and part of the plan is "identifying where people move after this closure. Helping them and supporting them is also a priority."

Tuesday's sweep marked the first time in six months that the mayor cleared an encampment without offering housing to the residents there, according to Johnston. The last time was when he swept an encampment that wrapped around the U.S. Post Office on 21st and Curtis streets. The city returned a month later to offer housing there, as well.

During a town hall on April 9, Johnston told La Alma residents that the Denver Police Department found 28 active warrants, many of them for felonies, for people living at the encampment, as well as "a number of overdose deaths."

The mayor expressed frustration at not being able to offer housing to the people at the encampment, but said it had grown too quickly, outpacing the number of units available through his All In Mile High plan.

Although the city "will not have enough units in the next two to four weeks to house [138] people," Johnston said, "we think the safety risks are too great at this site to let it continue to grow for another four to six weeks until those units are available."

The city had started trying to connect people at the encampment to housing before the population grew, but was unable to make those connections before the site grew from forty people to almost 140, Salas says.

"When we were first looking at this encampment, we were planning to house approximately forty people. Unfortunately, this encampment grew too fast," Salas says. "We identified it; we knew we had the resources available to put the people there into housing, we got the ball rolling — but, unfortunately, it grew."

Johnston blamed the site's growth on people coming to the encampment with hopes of getting swept into housing after they heard that the city had come by to put people into units. 

"What we know happens right now, unfortunately, is when we start having conversations with people in the encampment, word gets out, [and] many community members or advocates say, 'Everyone should go to this site because there will be housing available,'" Johnston said during the town hall. "And it goes from forty people to 140 people in a couple days."

The mayor said it's happened before at other encampments, "but not to this volume."

The Housekeys Action Network Denver, which advocates for affordable housing and homeless rights, says the camp wouldn't have become a public health and safety risk if Johnston had taken care of the people there.

"Any public health and safety risk at this camp which the mayor is trying to use to justify the sweep is the creation of the mayor’s office for not following his promises to provide sanitation resources or outreach teams to camps," HAND wrote in a press release on Friday, April 12. "The city only recently started some spotty and poorly executed trash service at this camp (which has included trashing people’s property!@#), and did not bring portapotties to the camp (saying they will attract people^!*) until this week after pressure at the public meeting!"

Upon taking office, Johnston promised he would not sweep encampments without housing to offer unless they became a public health or safety hazard or infringed on the public right-of-way.

After being swept out of the La Alma encampment on Tuesday, Alexandra Holt says that the people there should have a place to go. 

"I feel like it would benefit them, too, if we all had a place to go," she says. "Then they could keep us all isolated instead of terrorizing community after community."

Another homeless resident, Jerry Swarts, agrees, arguing that "we need more resources" at the encampment.

"We didn't have enough help here. We don't have anywhere to go, and we probably won't have any help wherever we end up," he says. "The city should be doing more for us instead of sending us off with nowhere to go." 
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