Denver Sweeps Homeless Encampment by Morey Middle School

The city swept the large encampment around Morey Middle School.
The city swept the large encampment around Morey Middle School. Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
Just before 6 a.m. on August 5, the City of Denver started the sweep of a large homeless encampment in front of Morey Middle School in Capitol Hill. It was the city's second dispersal of a major homeless encampment during the COVID-19 pandemic, following the July 29 clearing of a tent city at Lincoln Park in front of the Capitol.

"This restriction is needed to allow for the immediate clearing, cleaning and mitigation of public health and environmental risks to this public area. The area restriction is temporary, and the area will re-open when abatement and clean-up measures have restored this location to a safe and stable state," says Ann Williams, deputy executive director for the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment.

Prior to the sweep, neighbors like James Foy, who has lived a block away from Morey Middle School for fifteen years, had been lobbying the administration of Mayor Michael Hancock to disperse those who had set up tents around the school. "I'm happy. I'm incredibly happy," Foy said, while standing outside the middle school.

"People have to feel safe where they live," Foy added, pointing out that he hasn't felt comfortable walking in parts of his neighborhood for weeks.

Until last week, Denver had largely avoided sweeping major encampments during the pandemic, which is what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends in order to avoid the spread of COVID-19. Citing a spiraling health and public-safety situation, however, city staffers swept the Lincoln Park encampment on July 29, with the help of Colorado State Patrol troopers, since Lincoln Park is state land.

And on August 3, the city began laying the groundwork for the eventual sweep of the Morey Middle School camp, sending employees with the Denver Department of Housing Stability to talk with individuals there about services and shelter options.

"At least there was some outreach in advance and it was less forceful," says Cathy Alderman of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless of the August 5 action. Service providers have criticized city officials for not doing much outreach before the July 29 sweep of the Lincoln Park encampment, which displaced around 200 individuals.

But Alderman, who estimates that there were between 150 and 200 people at the Morey encampment at its peak, thinks that the city is still not addressing a pressing issue. "It still doesn't solve where people are supposed to go," she notes.

For months, the city has leased space at the National Western Center, which it's used to temporarily shelter hundreds of homeless men each night; that lease is set to end on August 15. Service providers, together with the City of Denver, will be shifting that shelter to the Denver Coliseum, which is currently being used as a large shelter for women. Service providers are now working to transfer those women to other shelters or find them motel rooms. The net result will be an overall loss of shelter beds in Denver. On any given night, however, the city still has hundreds of available shelter beds.

That's because even with shelter beds available, hundreds of people prefer to stay on the streets rather than in shelters. Most, if not all, of those dispersed from the Morey encampment will just find somewhere else in the metro area where they can set up their tents.

To address this reality, service providers have been working with the Hancock administration to secure a piece of land for a temporary safe camping site; ultimately they'd like to see several set up. Efforts to establish the first site in the Coliseum parking lot flopped after concerns were voiced by neighbors. As a result, providers are now eyeing state-owned land in Denver for possible locations. Governor Jared Polis has said he'd consider offering state land for the temporary site, but no deal has been made.

See a slideshow of the sweep.
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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.