Coming Clean About the Homeless "Sweeps" in Denver

What's the deal with the word "sweeps?"
What's the deal with the word "sweeps?" Noah Kaplan
In a January 25 ruling placing restrictions on the City of Denver's actions related to homeless encampments, Judge William J. Martinez of the U.S. District Court of Colorado used the words "sweep" and "sweeps" 42 times.

The City of Denver doesn't like the word "sweep," and it didn't like judge's take on the case. On January 26, it filed an emergency motion in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals asking to block Martinez's ruling, saying that the requirements of his order placed unnecessarily onerous restrictions on city officials.

And in a footnote to that motion, lawyers with the Denver City Attorney's Office wrote that "in its Order, the district court adopts Plaintiffs' term, 'sweeps' to describe Denver's conduct related to encampments. Throughout this Motion, Denver uses the term 'cleanups' — when [the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure] posts advance notice of areas which need to be cleaned — or 'area restrictions' — when restrictions are issued by the [Denver Department of Public Health and Environment]."

That response, while tempered, underscored the fact that members of Mayor Michael Hancock's administration and many other city officials have pushed back hard against the word "sweep," opting for a handful of other terms, such as "cleanup."

What, exactly, is the administration's objection to "sweep"?

"City agencies have a chartered responsibility to keep our city clean, safe and free of hazards that cause harm," explains Theresa Marchetta, spokesperson for Mayor Hancock. "Using the word 'sweeps' is not only inaccurate in describing the work, it also perpetuates an image of a person that is not in alignment with our values. We will never respond to a neighborhood request to 'sweep.' The term is demeaning and dehumanizing and does not reflect the incredibly challenging work by our employees and partners to connect someone who is living on the streets with housing, with care, with supportive services and with stability."

Although in years past the city would sometimes use the word "sweeps" in internal communications, it avoids it entirely in public pronouncements today.

Homeless-service providers frequently use it, however.

"I don't always call them sweeps. Sometimes I refer to them as 'enforcement actions' or 'cleanups.' But I think when you are moving people around who have nowhere to go because people don't want to see them, then 'sweeps' can be accurate," says Cathy Alderman of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. "If I was the administration, I think I would be less concerned about what they are called and more concerned about the impact it has on people and communities."

Marchetta disagrees. "This issue has become politically charged and sensationalized, sometimes out of genuine care for those who are unhoused, and other times to drive agendas and vendettas," she says. "A term like 'sweeps' should not derail our efforts to help people exit homelessness, nor stigmatize those who do that work."

To be clear, the actions described in euphemisms used by city officials for "sweep" actually do occur.

The term "cleanup" accurately refers to when Parks and Recreation employees pick up trash in a park, which frequently happens after a sweep. And "area restriction" does apply when public health officials fence off an area so that only residents of an encampment and city workers can enter and exit — usually just prior to a sweep.

But neither of those terms describe the most significant part of a sweep: the forced removal of people using tents or tarps to shelter outdoors from a specific area.

Merriam-Webster has multiple definitions for "sweep" as a noun, including "a clearing out or away with or as if with a broom." That is exactly what happens during these forced dispersals: City employees are clearing out people and their belongings from a park or a parking lot or the grass next to a sidewalk.

Judge Martinez recognized as much during the last day of an evidentiary hearing in the homeless sweeps class-action lawsuit filed by Denver Homeless Out Loud and ten homeless individuals in October 2020.

Throughout the January 11 hearing, city employees took issue with the use of the term "sweeps" by Andy McNulty, the Killmer, Lane & Newman attorney suing the city on behalf of the plaintiffs.

"We actually don’t call them sweeps. That’s a really pejorative term," said Eliza Hunholz, assistant director for the Denver park ranger program.

But Martinez quickly shot back: "Ma’am, there is a difference between a daily cleaning and removing people. We need to use different words for the record."

That day, Martinez settled on referring to the sweeps as "evictions," although in the past he'd used "sweeps."

In a 2018 court order, Martinez had written: “For purposes of this lawsuit, those sweeps are defined as 'the City and County of Denver’s alleged custom or practice (written or unwritten) of sending ten or more employees or agents to clear away an encampment of multiple homeless persons by immediately seizing and discarding the property found there.”

And on January 25, when he issued his ruling on McNulty's request for a preliminary injunction in the current class-action case, he resurrected the word "sweeps."

When he requested that preliminary injunction, McNulty had asked that Martinez stop the sweeps entirely; instead, in a split decision for both sides, the judge determined that the city needed to give advance notice of the actions — no matter what they are called.
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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.