Denver Government

Why This Man Joined a Homeless Encampment Knowing That a Sweep Was Coming

Jeff McCombs came to an encampment knowing it would be swept soon.
Jeff McCombs came to an encampment knowing it would be swept soon. Conor Mc
After being swept from an encampment at East 20th Avenue and Sherman Street just a few days earlier, 34-year-old Jeff McCombs rolled a cart holding his few belongings down the street to a growing encampment at East 16th Avenue and Sherman.

The Department of Transportation and Infrastructure is slated to conduct a sweep there early on April 28. Everyone staying at this camp, including McCombs, will have to move.

Under an injunction issued in January 2021 by a federal judge, the City of Denver must provide seven days' notice before sweeping encampments. (In the case of a health emergency, the time is reduced to two days.) "I don't understand why more people are moving to it when there's a sweep on the books for Thursday," says Councilman Chris Hinds, who represents this section of Denver.

For McCombs, the reason he settled in the encampment, despite knowing it would soon be swept, is simple. "It's where my buddies were, mostly," McCombs says. "It's like that whole saying goes: 'Misery loves company.'"

Some of the other people at this encampment arrived on April 26 after being swept from a spot at 31st and Lawrence streets, according to Ana Cornelius of Denver Homeless Out Loud.

"Many people will go to an already established encampment, even if it's scheduled for a sweep, because that's where safety is," she explains. "We have a policy that is directly working against how human beings are wired to adapt."

Originally from Golden, McCombs is a mechanic by trade and was living in Arvada before becoming homeless about a year and four months ago. He's struggled with drug addiction, specifically fentanyl pills, which he refers to using their street name, "blues."
click to enlarge The 16th Avenue and Sherman Street encampment is on the edge of downtown. - CONOR MCCORMICK-CAVANAGH
The 16th Avenue and Sherman Street encampment is on the edge of downtown.
Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
On the streets, McCombs has found it quite difficult to hold onto his possessions. "I've lost everything multiple times," he says, noting that he's had a few phones stolen and once was robbed of four backpacks in five days. More recently, someone lifted a backpack that held his ID and Social Security card.

McCombs doesn't use a tent, but instead shelters in a large sleeping bag. He says he plans to stay at the encampment at 16th and Sherman until city staffers and contractors start fencing the area off before the sweep.

"I'll be awake when they start showing up," says McCombs, who often walks around at night to stay warm. And it won't take him long to depart: All of his belongings are packed onto his cart.

McCombs says he's on waiting lists to get permanent housing, and doesn't know where he'll go until then. "I have no idea, actually," he admits. "I'll probably just follow the crowd."

McCombs hasn't tried any of the shelters in Denver; he doesn't like what he's heard about their inflexible schedules for people who show up at night. "It reminds a lot of people of jail, actually," McCombs says. "The shelters aren't for everybody."

But he's also sympathetic to the idea that encampments shouldn't be allowed on public property, a philosophy that the City of Denver endorses through its camping ban and enforces through its sweeps.

"You can't just have people living on the sidewalks. It's not fair to the public, it's not fair to kids," McCombs says, adding, "This isn't good for anybody."
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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.