Four Winds American Indian Council Claims Retaliation by Denver Officials

Denver authorities swept a homeless encampment outside Four Winds American Indian Council on August 31.
Denver authorities swept a homeless encampment outside Four Winds American Indian Council on August 31. Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
click to enlarge Denver authorities swept a homeless encampment outside Four Winds American Indian Council on August 31. - CONOR MCCORMICK-CAVANAGH
Denver authorities swept a homeless encampment outside Four Winds American Indian Council on August 31.
Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
A local civil rights attorney who has battled Denver in court over homeless sweeps has told the city to stop harassing the Four Winds American Indian Council, whose community center was the site of a recent sweep.

"Over the past two weeks, Four Winds American Indian Council has endured a racist and imperialist campaign of harassment and intimidation by Denver and its officials. Four Winds is demanding that Denver cease its actions immediately," Andy McNulty, a lawyer with Killmer, Lane and Newman, writes in a September 20 letter to Mayor Michael Hancock.

On the morning of August 31, the City of Denver swept an encampment of around twenty individuals outside the Four Winds American Indian Council community center at West Fifth Avenue and Bannock Street. The city workers and contractors who conducted the sweep were met by a crowd of protesters.

On August 30, residents of the encampment and Four Winds leadership had met with the mayor virtually to ask the city to cancel the sweep and provide a "Native-preference" safe outdoor space for those staying at the encampment, which had developed a reputation as a safe place for Indigenous individuals. Native Americans are significantly overrepresented in metro Denver's homeless population.

"Mr. Hancock walked with the natives before for Columbus Day," says Sharon Barth, a 51-year-old Native American woman who was living in the encampment. "He should understand what we're going through."

Hancock declined to cancel the sweep.

"That you would not listen to their requests, and would instead evict Native people from that land through a sweep, is an abomination and demonstrates the emptiness of your administration's professed solidarity with the indigenous community," McNulty writes.

In the aftermath of the sweep, more tents popped up on the Four Winds property, right next to the fenced-off area that had been cleared.

"Then, Denver posted a police officer outside of Four Winds, and that officer has monitored Four Winds, and its members, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. This constant surveillance continued until recently and is an act of brazen intimidation," McNulty says in his letter.

The City of Denver also served Four Winds with a notice that it's violating a section of the Denver Zoning Code by allowing "five Native unhoused residents to reside on its own property," McNulty describes.

"Denver is trying to force Four Winds to convert its community center...into a homeless shelter," the attorney continues. "If Denver wishes to operate a homeless shelter in Four Winds' neighborhood, it has the ability to do so. However, Denver does not have the authority to push its responsibilities to care for our unhoused neighbors off onto Four Winds and its Native members."

While the letter, which includes Denver City Attorney Kristin Bronson as a recipient, doesn't mention a lawsuit, the contents suggest that one could be forthcoming.

"Not only are all of these actions that Denver has taken immoral, they are also illegal," McNulty argues, before listing off possible Fourteenth and Fourth Amendment violations, among other reported rights infringements.

"Denver must immediately stop violating Four Winds' rights. We welcome the opportunity to speak about these issues, but only after Denver ceases its campaign of retaliation and harassment against Four Winds. We look forward to your response," McNulty concludes.

"It definitely feels discriminatory," says Mateo Parsons, chair of the Four Winds American Indian Council. "It feels like it’s retaliation for pushing back on the city’s policies on homelessness and pushing back on the sweep in particular, and generating a lot of negative public attention for what the city is doing right now."

"Mr. McNulty’s implications that what is occurring here is in any fashion racially or ethnically motivated is outrageous and without foundation," replies Mike Strott, spokesman for Hancock. "Unsanctioned encampments pose a health and safety risk to those living in them and those living around them. The Mayor has been clear that they cannot persist when better alternatives remain available. For further context on those who were connected to real solutions as opposed to the accusations of those who want them to stay in these conditions: There were five people from that encampment who were placed in Safe Outdoor Spaces and 10 who were provided two-week motel vouchers to help them connect with longer term services and resources. The week before the actual cleanup, the Homeless Outreach Team contacted a woman living in the encampment outside Four Winds who had three small children (including a toddler) living in the tent with her. Nobody at Four Winds or within the camp had offered her assistance or bothered to provide resources for the children. DPD was able to get her and her children out of the encampment and connected with supportive resources."

Through the summer, Hancock has insisted that his administration considers dealing with homelessness issues a priority. "An episode of homelessness should be no more than a brief, one-time circumstance, and we must do everything in our power to stabilize our most vulnerable neighbors," the mayor said during a June 30 speech announcing a new housing and homelessness strategy.

Last October, McNulty sued the city on behalf of Denver Homeless Out Loud and multiple homeless plaintiffs over sweeps. As a result of that lawsuit, Judge William J. Martinez of the U.S. District Court of Colorado ultimately placed restrictions on the city in January regarding timing and notice of sweeps. But sweeps continue under those restrictions — including the one outside of Four Winds at the end of last month.

This story has been updated to include a comment from the mayor's office. Here's McNulty's letter to the city:

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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.