Denver Officials Sweep Homeless Encampment Amid Rat Infestation

The homeless encampment before the city shut down Liberty Park.
The homeless encampment before the city shut down Liberty Park. Evan Semón
The future of Denver's camping ban may be up in the air, but the city is still dismantling homeless encampments.

Today, January 15, health department officials dispersed an encampment comprising about 35 tents set up on the outskirts of Liberty Park, which is in front of the State Capitol. Public-health staffers say a rat infestation forced them to disperse the camp and close the park.

"It is not safe or humane for people to be here with these conditions, so we need to restrict access and address what’s going on," said Ann Cecchine-Williams, deputy executive director of the Department of Public Health and Environment, at the park today.

This morning, city public-health officials showed journalists around the park and pointed to holes near trees that they said rats were living in.

"There’s discarded food all over this park and along the perimeters. Food waste attracts rodents and bugs. That is probably what is causing the rodent infestation in this park. So in order to get a handle on what is going on, we need to move everyone and everything out of the park so we can take a look at the grounds and come up with a plan to restore it," said Cecchine-Williams.

Because Liberty Park is state property, Denver officials are working with state employees in cleaning up the park.

After being roused by police officers, some individuals sheltering in tents questioned whether the city was just using the rats as an excuse to disperse their encampment.

click to enlarge City officials say these holes are signs of a rat infestation. - CONOR MCCORMICK-CAVANAGH
City officials say these holes are signs of a rat infestation.
Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
"They’re getting all the homeless people out because they don’t like us being here," said Misty Splude, who was staying in one of the tents with her husband.

As a result of a court ruling last year, the city must notify an encampment seven days before it disperses tents. The city declined to warn Liberty Park's temporary residents of today's cleanup, citing immediate health concerns.

"This is about public and environmental health concerns. It’s an immediate action," said Cecchine-Williams, adding, "It’s definitely not a sweep."

Still, homeless individuals were told they had to move their belongings and that they couldn't return so that city employees could clean the area. The clean up could take weeks, according to Cecchine-Williams.

On January 13, the Denver City Attorney's Office announced that the Denver Police Department would restart enforcement of city's camping ban sometime this week. Police officers hadn't been enforcing the camping ban, which gives them authority to disperse homeless individuals using tents and sleeping bags, since December 27, when a court ruled the ban unconstitutional. Not long after that ruling, the city attorney's office filed a notice that it would appeal the judge's decision, which immediately reinstated the camping ban as law. That appeal process could take a year or more to play out.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.