Denver Auditor to Examine City's Homeless Encampment Sweeps

The city continues to sweep encampments. How much do these actions cost?
The city continues to sweep encampments. How much do these actions cost? Evan Semón
For the past year, homeless-rights advocates and service providers have lobbied for an audit of the City of Denver's sweeps of homeless encampments; now Denver Auditor Tim O'Brien has agreed to take up the cause.

"We start hearing about it enough. It's something that we contemplate attaching a resource to," O'Brien says, explaining why he added an examination of homeless sweeps to his office's 2022 audit plan.

"This audit will evaluate Denver’s oversight of encampments of people experiencing homelessness. This may include program costs, encampment cleanup processes and costs, and community impact," reads the 2022 Audit Plan. The evaluation will be the first in-depth public examination of how much Mayor Michael Hancock's administration spends on encampment sweeps.

While Denver keeps close track of the money it spends on affordable housing and homelessness services, city officials say that they don't aggregate the cost of sweeps, which involve the use of city workers, including cops, as well as private contract workers who install fencing around encampments and clean up the areas.

"There's just a lot of mechanics around this question that make it very difficult to say 'It’s this amount,' because it’s so dependent on the conditions that you’re encountering," Julie Smith, a Department of Finance spokesperson, had previously told Westword. "In the course of city government, we don’t necessarily always track our budget expenditures in that fine of a detail."

O'Brien says that he had received a similar answer from city officials, but that they've since changed their response. "Now I'm getting the answer that they will be able to produce a cost that shows the city's approach to homeless encampments," O'Brien notes. "I think it's doable. Denver has a fairly sophisticated accounting system, which can account for a lot of things in a lot of different ways."

In late 2020, homeless-rights advocates and community organizations such as All In Denver, a nonprofit group whose goal is to make Denver "a more equitable city," called for an audit of encampment sweeps.

"All In Denver got involved as a resource to support the folks who were doing this work on the ground. And one of the things they were asking for was transparency as to how much the sweeps cost," says Jami Duffy, co-chair of All In Denver.

Duffy and others at All In Denver met with O'Brien and his team, who said that the office's usual timeline for audit plans meant that this particular issue would likely get kicked to the 2022 plan. "They did what they said they would do," says Duffy. "The victory here really belongs to the folks who have been on the ground doing the work for so long."

Shannon Hoffman, one of those people on the ground, had also been asking for an audit. "What I expect to see is millions of dollars being spent on sweeps," says Hoffman, who believes they should be stopped immediately. "I hope that number is glaring enough to community members to consider that this is not cost-effective. If we're spending millions of dollars and the solution that we all want — which is to house people — is not happening, then how do we reallocate these dollars?"

In February, From Allies to Abolitionists released the results of a "people's audit" that its members had conducted through Colorado Open Records Act requests regarding seven encampment sweeps that took place in 2020. According to Hoffman, the thinking was, "Okay, the auditor isn't going to do this right now, so let's do this as a community. We can CORA these documents, and we can pull some of this information together."

The advocacy group determined that combined, the seven sweeps cost at least $148,000. But those sweeps represent just a fraction of the number conducted annually by the city, which is required by a federal court settlement and a federal court order to provide seven days' notice before conducting encampment sweeps.

While Auditor O'Brien says he hopes that the city will provide his office with what it needs to conduct the audit, he's ready to adapt. "If we don't get some report from the chief financial officer or mayor's office, we will piece together what we can from contracts," he explains.

The auditor also plans to look at the city's shelter system and affordable-housing programs in the 2022 audit season. "I think we've got an aggressive plan for 2022," O'Brien concludes.
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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.