Homeless Encampment Near Lawson Park Scattered for Xcel Energy Project

City workers pick up an abandoned tent on California Street.
City workers pick up an abandoned tent on California Street. Sara Fleming
People living in an encampment on the corner of 24th and California streets have been scattered to make way for an Xcel Energy project. This enforcement of the camping ban comes after police and city officials faced scrutiny from Denver Homeless Out Loud and other homeless advocates — who argued that the city was violating a pending lawsuit settlement by failing to give seven days’ notice before a large sweep — at the same encampment last week.

The day that sweep was supposed to occur, September 11, police backed down from full enforcement of the camping ban and allowed people to stay. But over the past few days, the individuals living there have been forced to move along under different auspices.

Xcel owns a substation (a facility that converts electricity into lower wattage and distributes it) along the block where a group of individuals has been camping for the past few months, since the city blocked off the grass in Sonny Lawson Park for reseeding in late July. According to Xcel spokesperson Michelle Aguayo, the company is planning to build out the substation onto land that it acquired in 2009, and will build a fence around the building. “The installation of the fence is for the safety of the public and for our crews,” Aguayo wrote in an emailed statement.

On Wednesday morning, September 18, Denver Homeless Out Loud captured video footage of police officers telling people in the encampment that they would have to move by the next day because of the fence, indicating that they would face possible jail time for trespassing if they did not.

At one point in the video footage, one of the officers spun toward Terese Howard, the Denver Homeless Out Loud organizer who was filming. “Hi, Terese, are you gonna help me out?” he asked. “I’m informing you that this is all illegal camping, and there’s gonna be a fence put up here, and maybe you can help me get everybody moved?”

click to enlarge Some of the unhoused people living in an encampment at 24th and California have moved on just around the corner after police cleared them off the block last night. - SARA FLEMING
Some of the unhoused people living in an encampment at 24th and California have moved on just around the corner after police cleared them off the block last night.
Sara Fleming
“Help what, scatter people around the city so that they have nowhere to go? That’s what help looks like?” Howard replied.

The fence has yet to be installed, but according to Renee Bell, who has been living there for the past few months, police came to the area on the evening of September 19. The city also confiscated property of three individuals who were not there at the time and took it to storage.

The class-action lawsuit, which attorney Jason Flores-Williams filed in 2016, disputes the city's practice of taking property of people experiencing homelessness during sweeps and cleanups, arguing that it violates constitutional protections against unlawful search and seizures, as well as the right to due process and protection from cruel and unusual punishment. The settlement, which was reached in February and will be finalized at a court hearing on Monday, specifies that the city must post a written notice on any property 48 hours prior to removing it unless it poses a health and safety risk.

Howard says the city also should have given seven days' notice before “sweeping” the encampment, pursuant to the settlement. Officers said the lawsuit did not impact the current situation. “My understanding is that these are two separate issues —a property owner closing off property versus the city doing a cleanup effort with the seven-day posting,” says Doug Schepman, a spokesperson for the Denver Police Department.

Aguayo, of Xcel, said the decision to put up the fence was not intended to displace homeless residents. But Howard questioned whether the timing was not purposeful, seeing as the encampment hadn’t encroached near their building until a few months ago.

Many of those living on the strip of sidewalk that was cleared have moved onto surrounding blocks. “They kick us off here, and we move over here, and they kick us off over there,” says a man named Joshua, who had been living at 24th and California. “It's just like a big cat-chase-mouse game.”
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Sara Fleming is a freelance writer and formal editorial fellow at Westword. She covers a wide variety of stories about local politics and communities. A born-and-raised Coloradan, when she's not exploring Denver, she's on a mission to visit every mountain town in the state.
Contact: Sara Fleming