Update, Wednesday, November 16, 10:30 a.m.: Police officers, sheriff's trustees (inmates who are trying to reduce sentences with work) and Public Works employees returned to Park Avenue and Lawrence Street on Wednesday morning to continue clearing out homeless encampments that had accumulated near the Denver Rescue Mission and Samaritan House since late summer.
When the cleanup operation began on Tuesday, November 15, there was a question as to whether the action was considered a "sweep" of the homeless, as individuals were not forced to completely abandon the sidewalks, only help consolidate belongings and clean up trash.
This morning, individuals camped along the north side of Lawrence Street were forced to move to the south side of the street while cleanup crews worked, but as of the time of this update, it appears that police will allow campers to return to north side of the street once the cleanup is completed.
"We're holding the block, and if that continues, this is a win," says Terese Howard of Denver Homeless Out Loud. "The question is whether police will come tonight and kick people out. But as long as they can stay, we've met our goal of holding the block."
Tension. On one side of Lawrence Street, a line of Denver police officers, mid-level city officials and brightly clad Public Works employees standing with their arms folded, waiting. On the other side of the street, in front of the Samaritan House, frenzied activity: homeless people piling belongings onto carts, protesters chanting and fuming, the snap, snap, snap of cameras as the media circus captured its fill of poverty porn.
Such was the scene at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, November 15, at Park Avenue West and Lawrence Street, where last week, the city preempted an encampment cleanup by posting signs advising homeless individuals to remove their belongings from the area by November 15.
But if anyone expected that the city and Denver Police would force people to leave with only whatever they could carry, as they did during sweeps of Park Avenue on December 15 and in March, they were mistaken.
After being hammered for sweep operations throughout the year, and while having to defend itself in a class action lawsuit alleging unlawful searches and seizures, Mayor Michael Hancock's administration appeared to take a more measured approach on Tuesday. Homeless individuals were allowed to gather their belongings but weren't asked to leave, and city crews focused primarily on cleaning up trash. (It's not clear whether some usable items that were taken belonged to individuals who were not able to be there on Tuesday morning and therefore unable to safeguard them. More on that below).
Given the advance notice for Tuesday’s operation, residents on the street were prepared for the police and the media cavalry. Some held signs or had adorned their shopping carts with messages, like one individual named Kaz, who had a poster on a cart that declared: “We may be without a home, but we are still PEOPLE.”
Kaz has been homeless for 27 years, in multiple cities across the county, and says that Denver’s crackdown on the homeless over the past year has been the worst.
At 10 a.m., police officers crossed Lawrence Street to the side where the groups were situated and cordoned off a section of the sidewalk with yellow police tape. “Shame on you!” Kaz yelled. “You’re grown men. And look at you, being bullies!”
Reactions among the homeless varied.
Some, fired up, chanted, “Move along to where?” and “We want the mayor!”
Others appeared sullen and resigned to this latest move against them by the city of Denver.
“You think I want to be out here?” a woman named Darlene said, more to herself than to anyone else. “We don’t have a choice. And we’re just like everyone else driving by, except that we don’t have a home.”
A man named Reggie explained that the reason that he and many homeless people in Denver choose to remain on the street rather than check into overnight shelters (including those at the very intersection where Tuesday’s cleanup occurred, including the Denver Rescue Mission and Samaritan House), is because he feels safer among friends on the sidewalk. There is also not enough room at the Ballpark neighborhood shelters for everyone who wants a bed.
Many who request beds at those shelters enter a lottery system, and if they are not awarded a bed at a shelter like the Denver Rescue Mission, they are bused to an overflow shelter near Interstate 70 and Peoria Street, commonly known as the “E-Shelter” by those on the streets.
Reggie is tired of being sent to the E-Shelter, which Westword profiled earlier this year in a cover story called “End of the Road.” The building is a former call center; Reggie says he has trouble sleeping there, given that he’s sometimes crowded into the giant room with hundreds of others and is only given a flimsy mat upon which to lay his head.
The facility has a separate wing for women, and Darlene, a Denver native who is in a wheelchair and has been homeless for three years, also mentioned her disdain for the E-Shelter and the lottery system that sends so many there.
(Not everyone is against the E-Shelter; when Westword visited the facility in February, some defended it by saying that they prefer to stay there.)
In January 2017, the city will begin moving its overflow shelter services to a new building it has purchased near Mile High Stadium, though construction there will move in phases, with men’s facilities in the new building completed first.
As of 2 p.m. on Tuesday, as individuals on Lawrence Street packed their belongings into bundles and carts, even helping city crews sweep up trash and place unwanted items into garbage bags, it looked as though officers were not going to make individuals on Lawrence Street move – only help them clean up trash.
There were still plenty of usable items, such as walkers and bicycles, being thrown into a pickup truck operated by Custom Environmental Services – the same private company that the city hired during the March sweep and paid using donated funds (until that was corrected).
Those items will be transported to a facility at 2100 31st Street, where they are supposed to be available for retrieval on weekdays between noon and 2 p.m. until December 15.
Unlike during the March sweep, Westword did not observe any Public Works employees issuing receipts or itemizing the belongings put into the truck. It remains to be seen whether the stored items will be easier to retrieve than those that were held for sixty days after the March 8 sweep at Glenarm Place, where only a single person ended up recovering their belongings while other homeless individuals (and outside observers like the ACLU of Colorado) complained that the requirements for proof of ownership were too strict.
Because people were not forcibly displaced, it's up to interpretation whether Tuesday's operation would be considered a “sweep.”
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When asked for her opinion of Tuesday's operation, Terese Howard of Denver Homeless Out Loud said, “This is progress, showing that we can keep the space and have a right to be here – that people can maintain a community in this central hub of homeless services.
“If it's not a sweep, it's a win.”
Asked about advocates calling Tuesday and Wednesday's events a win, Denver Human Services spokeswoman Julie Smith said it wasn't about winners and losers.
"I am saddened that anyone would characterize it in that way. No one wins when people are left to live in inhumane, unsanitary and unsafe conditions. We want more for the people of our city. We will continue to work to connect people to shelter, housing and other resources while keeping the public right of way clean and free of encumbrances."