The City of Denver receives a few dozen phone calls every day from residents complaining about a homeless encampment or even just a tent near their home, their office or some other area they frequent. Even though these callers are not voicing concerns about criminal activity, such as drug dealing or prostitution, operators on the non-emergency line of the Denver Police Department typically wind up fielding the calls, either because the DPD was contacted directly or because the call was forwarded by 311 or another city agency.
"What we came to find out was that [Denver Police Department officers] were at a loss about what to do with the ones where a crime wasn't happening in that area," says Laura Dunwoody, director of 311 City Services. After receiving such a call, a Denver police commander would send out a patrol car to do an assessment of the encampment that was the subject of the complaint before deciding what, if anything, could be done.
Soon, however, the DPD will stop fielding these calls: The City of Denver, hoping to remove law enforcement involvement from non-criminal matters, plans to forward general complaints about encampments to a dedicated homeless outreach team.
"The police are better served responding to crime, to urgent calls, as opposed to dealing with encampment issues that typically are those right-of-way encumbrances, trespassing and that violation of the urban camping ordinance," says Armando Saldate, head of the Early Intervention Team, a pilot program introduced last fall that will handle complaints about unauthorized camping starting March 1.
While DPD non-emergency line operators deal with most of the thirty or so daily calls that involve general complaints regarding tents or encampments, some calls go directly to 311, while others go either to the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure or Denver Parks and Recreation before being forwarded to the DPD. After this policy shift, all general camping complaints will be sent to 311 operators, who will then pass the information to the Early Intervention Team.
Upon receiving a 311 complaint about an unauthorized encampment or tent, the Early Intervention Team will visit the site of the complaint, assess the situation and offer services to residents, such as a connection to food stamps. Saldate or a team manager will later follow up with the person who called in the complaint, providing a status report and information on outreach results, if available.
The city's 311 operators will still forward callers who report criminal activity that goes beyond the bounds of urban camping, such as open drug dealing, to the DPD's non-emergency line. And 311 calls reporting emergencies will still go to 911 operators. Meanwhile, 311 will continue to field close to 2,000 calls a day; trash is the most common subject of those contacts.
By directing homeless complaints to the Early Intervention Team, the city hopes to cut down on interactions between law enforcement and homeless individuals. To set that separation in motion, the city has already been dispatching the STAR truck, which pairs a mental health worker with a paramedic, to certain situations, such as incidents where a homeless individual is experiencing a mental health crisis.
"The community has said they don’t want the police responding to everything and creating a criminal justice-involved incident, when a clinician and a paramedic have served a really good response to a lot of calls that STAR has done," says Saldate, who sees the Early Intervention Team, which frequently calls the STAR truck for assistance, as filling a similar purpose.
When it went operational in October 2020, the Early Intervention Team was under the Department of Public Safety and included staffers from Human Services, Denver Health substance-misuse navigators, police officers and firefighters. But the emphasis was always on enforcement only being used as a last resort, with city employees opting for a softer approach when visiting encampments to offer services and connect with residents.
Mayor Michael Hancock now wants the Early Intervention Team to become a permanent fixture in Denver, and in the coming months, it will phase out its reliance on firefighters and police officers, eventually becoming a totally non-law enforcement entity.
Saldate says the plan calls for moving the team out from under Public Safety — which oversees the DPD, as well as the fire and sheriff departments — and into another city department, such as Housing Stability. He envisions the team ultimately having six full-time employees, plus a handful of substance-misuse navigators from Denver Health. The team would continue to coordinate with existing street-outreach workers, including those associated with the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.
"Anytime that we can get social workers or mental health providers — people who are in the business of connecting people to services and helping people identify what things might help them — versus just enforcing a law against them, it’ll be much better for the people in the encampments," says Cathy Alderman of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, calling the policy shift a "step in the right direction."
The Hancock administration is also mulling the idea of setting up a civil enforcement division that would allow civilian employees, not law enforcement officers, to enforce the urban camping ban and public right-of-way laws. Administration officials liken that strategy to how Denver park rangers, while not law enforcement officers, can enforce certain ordinances related to parks.
But even if the city goes through with setting up this enforcement division, the administration still plans to conduct large-scale cleanups the same way they're being done today, combining police officers with other city employees and contractors.
The Hancock administration has faced significant criticism over its decision to continue sweeping homeless encampments during the COVID-19 pandemic, despite the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advising municipalities not to do so unless individual housing is available. The city is currently battling a class-action lawsuit filed by ten homeless plaintiffs and the homeless advocacy organization Denver Homeless Out Loud last fall, which resulted in a federal court judge's ruling that places restrictions on when and how the city can sweep encampments.
The city has appealed this ruling; once that decision comes down, the suit will proceed.
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