Tensions high in Denver over clearing homeless encampments

1148

DENVER  |  Tensions are high among homeless people, their advocates and Denver city officials over the dismantling of homeless camps that have sprung up this summer near the state Capitol as promises to open city-sanctioned camping sites have yet to be fulfilled.

After giving notice last week, the city cleared three nearby encampments along sidewalks in a neighborhood. On Tuesday, city workers helped by police told those living in tents and makeshift shelters made of poles and curtains to move out. After packing up, with volunteers helping move their belongings with a cart or car, some moved in defiance to the next block that was slated to be cleared the following day.

They included Sophie Elias, 40, who does not want to move into a shelter and separate from the man she married last month. Before the sweep, she suggested a news conference that she might use a firearm to protect her tent under Colorado’s stand your ground law, but she left peacefully to move across the street with the help of a caseworker who has known her for years.

Elias became agitated while talking about her frustration with the repeated sweeps of homeless people, directing her anger at police officers just behind a temporary chain link fence set up around the perimeter of the encampment.

“You and your wife are one paycheck away from being out here and asking us for your help,” she yelled.

The sweeps come as homeless people and their advocates are challenging the actions in federal court, accusing the city of in a lawsuit of disregarding Centers for Disease Control guidance against clearing encampments when no other housing is available as a way to avoid spreading the coronavirus. They also accuse the city of violating notice requirements it promised to follow in another federal lawsuit settled last year.

Meanwhile, plans to open temporary, managed camping areas during the pandemic ran into opposition from neighbors and businesses, although a non-profit leading the effort, the Colorado Village Collaborative, is still working to find other sites.

The city says it has to balance concerns about spreading the coronavirus by dispersing encampments with the possibility of outbreaks of other diseases and health dangers posed by people living on the street in unsanitary conditions. It denies violating notice requirements but has declined to comment further on the lawsuit. Notice for the latest round of cleanups were posted last week, officials said.

The positivity rate for the coronavirus among the homeless, based mostly on testing at shelters, has stayed relatively low, said Danica Lee, director of the public health investigations division of the city’s health department. Shigellosis and trench fever, a rare disease spread by lice that afflicted soldiers during World War I, were found at other encampments cleared this summer, she said. Infestations by rodents and insects, and contamination of storm drains have also been problems in the past.

On the block cleared on the first day of this week’s cleanup, over 700 used syringes were found, she said.

Opponents of the sweeps say the city sets the encampments up for failure by not providing clean water, bathrooms and enough trash pickup service, especially given the large donations of food by well-meaning people that inevitably gets wasted. Lee said the city favors creating sanctioned camping areas since zoning regulations restrict what kind of infrastructure it can install in the middle of neighborhoods.

Ean Thomas Tafoya, an organizer on climate and water issues for Green Latinos, has been using his experience providing portable toilets and water for music festivals — no longer needed during the pandemic — to train volunteers to do the same at homeless encampments. He showed up to oppose the sweeps but also talked authorities into letting him take abandoned tents to be redistributed.

Other opponents occasionally directed their anger at police on the other side of the fence. A group of construction workers from a nearby building came out to watch the scene, standing back. As Elias talked loudly, one of them told her to shut up, leading the sweep opponents to gather around him. A resident of the building said he had been hearing the woman talking for months and was tired of it. Police asked the workers to back up, but one said he would see the group after the police left, which the group took as a threat. Over a loud speaker, someone drew the group back to the fence to return the focus to the sweeps.

The Colorado Village Collaborative, which operates tiny homes for homeless people, has launched an education campaign to help people understand how much different sanctioned camping sites, established in places like Portland, Oregon, San Francisco and near Aspen, would be from the camps that have developed on streets. Director Cole Chandler said he is hoping for a more humane response to the next site.

“I’ve been slightly disappointed in Denverites who have not been willing to make space in their neighborhoods and in their hearts for the most vulnerable among us during a time when we’ve learned we’re only as healthy as our unhealthiest member,” he said.

Despite the division over what to do about encampments, people on both sides of the issue have united behind a proposed sales tax increase on the ballot to fund homeless services, said city Councilwoman Robin Kniech, who introduced the measure. It would increase the city’s sales tax by .25, or 2.5 cents on a $10 purchase to raise an estimated $40 million a year.

Kniech said she gets calls from people asking for the city to remove encampments and from those who oppose them, but she said all of them think more has to be done to help the people living at the sites. The revenue from the proposed tax would pay for housing with supportive services and other needs. One city housing program for the chronically homeless who once cycled in and out of jail and emergency rooms has retained 80 percent of its residents over three years, she said.

“We can unite around solutions that reduce the number of people in those camps,” Kniech said.