Council Contract Discussion Highlights Tensions Over Encampment Sweeps

Environmental Hazmat Services employees help clear out homeless encampments in Denver.
Environmental Hazmat Services employees help clear out homeless encampments in Denver. Michael Emery Hecker
Denver City Council will vote on a contract extension with Environmental Hazmat Services, a company that assists with encampment sweeps, later this month. But the discussion is already getting down and dirty.

"I’ve personally witnessed a lot of really unprofessional behavior from EHS employees really stretching into needless cruelty toward the populations that they’re working with," Lauren Echo, who attends homelessness advocacy events in Denver, said during the public-comment session of a Denver City Council Safety, Housing, Education and Homelessness Committee meeting on September 1.

While Echo encouraged councilmembers to reject a two-year contract extension with EHS that would run through October 2023, other residents argued in favor. "A lapse in this service would pose a significant public-health risk to the City and County of Denver," said Heather McKenzie.

The City of Denver has contracted with Wheat Ridge-based Environmental Hazmat Services since October 2018, paying the company $1.57 million so far. While also responsible for other types of cleanups, EHS workers typically are involved with encampment sweeps and either dispose of or store items found at the scene, such as tents, sleeping bags and other belongings, then clear the area.

The city has conducted eighty encampment sweeps in 2021, according to Ana Cornelius of Denver Homeless Out Loud, and EHS has been at all of them. The workers frequently encounter needles, human waste and other dangerous items and substances. They often encounter hostility from protesters, too.

The proposed contract extension would require that EHS workers involved in encampment sweeps attend and pass sensitivity training sponsored by the Denver Department of Housing Stability and refrain from engaging with members of the public during sweeps.

Echo praised that concept, but added, "Unless this company is going to fire all of their employees and get new ones, I just don’t know if that’s going to make a new difference."

"None of us have witnessed some of the disrespectful comments or behavior we’ve heard about," responded Margaret Medellin, a deputy manager at the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure who oversees the Solid Waste Division.

The council committee ultimately voted to send the extension proposal — which only calls for additional time, not more money, since the contract covers up to $6 million in services — to the full council for a vote, but not before members of the committee voiced concerns about the work done by EHS during encampment sweeps.

Robin Kniech, an attorney and at-large councilmember, said that she wanted to see a formal process for handling complaints from the public adopted by both EHS and the Denver Department of Transportation and Infrastructure, the city agency that directly contracts with the company.

Kniech also expressed her belief that the city's approach to the disposal of tents and sleeping bags might violate Fourth Amendment protections and also go against the terms of a federal court settlement that Denver agreed to in 2019 regarding sweeps and storage of possessions. A lawsuit filed in October 2020 by multiple homeless individuals and Denver Homeless Out Loud named EHS as a defendant, in addition to the City and County of Denver and the State of Colorado. The lawsuit resulted in a federal court order placing certain restrictions on Denver regarding the timing of sweeps.

Councilwoman Kendra Black, who represents far southeast Denver, asked city officials how many people have come to collect their items stored after a sweep. "In the years I’ve been doing it, it’s not a very large number," Adam Abeyta of DOTI said. "It’s very minimal that someone would come and retrieve their things."

Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer, who represents the central section of east Denver, asked how the city ensures that EHS does a thorough job of cleaning.

"We’re going to start taking pictures so we actually have documentation of what the site looks like when we have assessed it as cleaned up," Medellin responded. "How can we provide better oversight? Those are things we’re doing internally with checklists, with more structured final approval of the site cleanup to make sure that when we leave that site, we assess it as clean."

If there's a problem with EHS's work, city officials noted, Denver can fire EHS for cause with no prior notice and without cause with notice of just a few weeks. That led Sawyer to ask whether cleanups would be interrupted while the city looked for a new contractor.

"If a contract was terminated, we would look to see if there were other services and potentially a stop-gap measure," said Greg Thomas of the Department of Public Health and Environment. "I really can’t answer if any external providers have capacity. We’re all struggling with labor."

EHS did not respond to a request for comment on the contract extension.

Councilman Paul Kashmann, who represents parts of south Denver, said that he'd like to see independent oversight of encampment sweeps by an entity that is not part of Mayor Michael Hancock's administration or EHS. "I hate the cleanups. I hate the cleanups. I hate the cleanups," he said, then added: "And I believe they’re necessary."
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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.

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