City Dismantles Large Tent City in Ballpark Neighborhood

A homeless sweep taking place on October 29, 2018.
A homeless sweep taking place on October 29, 2018. Chris Walker
A homeless encampment that was home to well over 100 individuals in the Ballpark neighborhood was dismantled today, October 29, when Denver Police Department officers, Denver Public Works employees and city dump trucks engaged in a large-scale sweep — or cleanup operation — of the streets around the Denver Rescue Mission.

During the past three months, a large tent city had formed near the intersection of Park Avenue West and Lawrence Street as more and more individuals slept there each night and refused to move when ordered to by police. Sergeant Brian Conover of the DPD’s Homeless Outreach Team said this morning that the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment had recently inspected the area and deemed it unsafe and unsanitary.

“You should have seen the feces and rats around here,” Conover said. “The whole goal is to provide people services and keep them safe."

click to enlarge CHRIS WALKER
Chris Walker
Today’s sweep was easily the largest in the area since one that took place in November 2016. Massive cleanup operations, which were much more common in 2015 and 2016, had proved controversial and divisive, especially once the city found itself embroiled in a class action lawsuit in federal court in which people experiencing homelessness and civil-rights lawyers have argued that constitutional and due-process rights are violated when the city confiscates or trashes campers’ belongings. That suit is still ongoing and is scheduled for a jury trial next spring.

After a federal judge granted class certification in that case — meaning that thousands of people experiencing homelessness are being represented in the suit against the city — police officers and city employees changed their tactics, engaging in smaller, daily cleanups of the area around the Rescue Mission.

“Monday through Friday, every morning, we’d have people move their tents so we could clean the area,” Conover said. “But recently, in the last couple months, people were no longer moving their tents. And last week, someone — we don’t know who — donated all these new tents you’re seeing around here, and that didn’t help the situation. We hope to get to the point where we can do daily cleanups again. And besides, there’s been about 200 beds empty at Crossroads Shelter every night.”

But a sizable number of people experiencing homelessness in Denver choose not to take advantage of such services, especially shelter beds, citing safety concerns. Conover says the police consider such individuals “service resistant.”

click to enlarge Signs posted on October 29 - CHRIS WALKER
Signs posted on October 29
Chris Walker
Count 24-year-old Jordan among them. “I can’t take my service dogs inside shelters, and their beds are infested with bedbugs,” the woman explained as she watched today’s sweep unfold.

She looked across Park Avenue, where the sidewalk had been cordoned off with police tape. On her side of the street, she and others were frantically moving their belongings before they were encircled by police. The plan, she said, was to relocate to the Platte River.

Jordan said she’d been part of the Ballpark tent encampment for two months, and she blamed the city and local service providers for some of the unsanitary conditions around the Rescue Mission.

“There are no porta-potties,” she pointed out. “The Rescue Mission and Samaritan House won’t let us in after a certain time to use their bathrooms, so we’re forced to go in alleyways or sometimes we use bottles and containers. We really try our best to keep things clean. We want to keep things clean.”

Other campers said they planned to return to the Ballpark neighborhood to camp later this evening after they've retrieved their belongings taken by the city.

Perhaps in response to the federal lawsuit, public works employees were being deliberate and diligent this morning about working with campers to document all of their belongings before the city carted their possessions off to a city-owned storage facility near Arkins Court in RiNo.

click to enlarge CHRIS WALKER
Chris Walker
“We give them thirty days to retrieve their belongings, as we always do, although I can tell you some trash bags full of stuff have been there nearly two years,” said one public works employee, who didn't want to be named in this article.

During the sweep, a 38-year-old named Kim and a 34-year-old named Myko were cooperating with public works employees to document their items that were placed into plastic bags. Both said that they planned to retrieve their items later in the afternoon at the storage facility near Arkins Court and would probably come back to camp in the same spot near the Rescue Mission tonight. 

Myko’s biggest complaint about the cleanup? “This is making me miss breakfast!”

While this morning’s sweep was large in scale, the atmosphere felt less combative compared to some of the sweeps that took place in 2016 — those that landed Denver in court.

Even so, the lawyer representing the homeless in the class action suit, Jason Flores-Williams, issued this statement today: “Despite being the subject matter of federal civil-rights litigation, the city is, at this moment, conducting a mass displacement of more than 200 homeless persons in the Triangle area of Denver: seizing what little property they possess, forcing them out of their shelters as winter descends on the area, inflicting punishment on them for the criminal act of being poor in violation of their fundamental constitutional and human rights."

The city’s Department of Human Services spun things in a different way. When we asked for comment specifically about the sweep, DHS said: “With winter weather moving in, the City and County of Denver and its partners are encouraging people experiencing homelessness to seek shelter rather than trying to brave the elements outdoors. Denver has nearly 2,000 shelter spaces available each night and the ability to leverage the city’s Recreation Centers to serve more in an emergency. On average, 100 to 150 shelter spaces go unused each night."
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Chris Walker is a freelancer and former staff writer at Westword. Before moving to the Mile High City he spent two years bicycling across Eurasia, during which he wrote feature stories for VICE, NPR, Forbes, and The Atlantic. Read more of Chris's feature work and view his portfolio here.
Contact: Chris Walker