“Pipe Town” was not easy to find.
If you didn’t already know how to get there, chances are you’d never be aware of the homeless encampment, which was located about a half mile from the National Western Complex behind some train tracks on the south side of the Platte River, opposite the side of the river with the bike path.
In fact, the encampment was so well hidden that some people had lived there, relatively undisturbed, for nearly three years.
“We had a beautiful community going here for a while,” a Pipe Town resident named Kally told Westword when we first visited the encampment on Sunday – a day before it was swept.
Bordered on one side by a pair of giant, half-exposed concrete pipes – hence the name — Pipe Town was more like a miniature village than an encampment. Some of its fifteen or so residents had even constructed wooden houses for themselves, shored up by thick support beams and weatherproofed with nylon tarps. There were more traditional tents, too, but all were methodically separated into individual plots alongside Pipe Town’s central walking path, its very own Main Street.
Pipe Town even had a “mayor,” a revered figure named Yeti who would resolve disputes when they arose between residents and coordinate items that the village would share, such as a grill and a bike pump to maintain the fleet of bicycles that Pipe Towners used to ride back and forth to more central areas of Denver.
At one point along the village path, a wooden sign was hung around a tree with the word “welcome” carved into it.
But that is no longer the case.
Last Thursday, another sign appeared on the edge of Pipe Town, installed by City of Denver employees and containing a glaring warning: “This area is permanently closed. All violators are subject to citation or arrest for trespass. D.R.M.C. 38-115. Possible penalties up to 1 year jail and/or $999 fine.”
On Monday this week, the city made good on its word, when a half-dozen police officers and a clean-up crew showed up around seven in the morning and started dismantling the village. The work crews are expected to finish carting away the last evidence of Pipe Town by Wednesday afternoon.
The sweep is just the latest example of Mayor Michael Hancock’s crackdown on homeless encampments, which ramped up significantly beginning in March of this year with the controversial and well-documented sweep of Park Avenue and Lawrence Street.
But the decision to move in on Pipe Town also demonstrates a concerted effort by the city to uproot even its most out-of-the-way homeless individuals, who, according to a couple former residents, were consciously trying to stay hidden and not bother anybody.
Westword first learned of the encampment and the impending sweep on Sunday upon receiving a tip.
Unlike other recent sweeps — such as a large and semi-secretive operation that occurred on July 13 and is the subject of an investigative feature published by our paper this week — the Mayor’s Commission on Homelessness, which includes service providers and homeless experts, received a vague warning on September 9 that the area around Pipe Town would be swept.
The e-mail to the commissioners, sent by Denver’s Road Home Executive Director Bennie Milliner, did not contain a specific date for the sweep, however.
Upon seeing a copy of the e-mail and then visiting the encampment on Sunday, Westword immediately sent inquires to Milliner, Denver Human Services and the Denver Police Department asking “in the interest of city transparency” when, exactly, the sweep was scheduled to occur.
No city officials responded, despite the fact that we now know the sweep and cleanup operation began on Monday.
This is concerning, because there have been reports – like those we explore in our recent feature story – about items belonging to homeless people being trashed during sweep operations without due process, a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.
But according to Milliner’s e-mail, and what Westword learned from a Pipe Town resident named AJ when we visited the site again on Tuesday, many of the items seized by the city at Pipe Town are being made available for retrieval for thirty days at an industrial building located at 2100 31st Street.
“Supposedly we can get some of our stuff back,” says AJ.
But he also says that a number of former Pipe Town residents who weren’t around on Monday did have assorted belongings trashed.
“There were blankets and quilts that people could have used that are in the dump right now, and what’s fucked up is that it’s because the person who they belonged to is in jail [at the moment],” AJ says.
As for AJ’s belongings, “I planned way ahead,” he says.
According to him, police officers started showing up two weeks ago to warn about the upcoming sweep, so many of the residents were able to get their most important possessions moved to a new camp that they’ve established in an undisclosed location along the Platte River before Monday’s sweep of Pipe Town began.
Still, AJ says, it was jarring on Monday morning when “I woke up to a fucking cop in my face, screaming at me to get the rest of my shit out of there.”
At least with this sweep, the city appears to have been a lot more transparent with its homeless commission and has made at least some items taken from the encampment available for retrieval (though it remains to be seen whether the retrieval process will be any easier than the much-criticized protocol that the city implemented at a facility after the March sweeps).
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The increased transparency immediately follows a month of open-records requests and questions sent by the ACLU of Colorado and Westword to city officials as to why such processes were not followed when planning and executing a July 13 sweep using the code names “Night Crawler” and “River Dance.”
Even given the warnings by police and the ability to retrieve some items, AJ says he’s confused as to why the city has dismantled his home when, just a couple months ago, a ranger came by “and he said we could stay.”
More than anything, he and others who lived in Pipe Town are disappointed that they now have to start all over again.
“We had a really good thing going here,” Kally said when Westword interviewed him on Sunday. “I wish you could have seen it.”