Denver’s sweeps, cleanup zones criticized for pushing homeless farther from city center — and housing resources

Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post Senior Denver Park Ranger Austin Sankey gathers information for the annual point-in-time count of people experiencing homelessness at Park Avenue West neighborhood in Denver on Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022.By JOE RUBINO | jrubino@denverpost.com | The Denver PostJanuary 29, 2022 at 6:00 a.m.

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City Councilwoman Amanda Sandoval said she has been getting calls from constituents in her northwest Denver district lately about a large encampment of unhoused people under the bridge that carries 20th Street over Platte Street.
“I have seen periodic tents along the Platte (River). Just one or two and then they usually move on,” said Sandoval, who has had her council office on Platte Street since 2019. “We have a growing, bigger number under the 20th Street viaduct. I have never seen that, ever.”
In Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca’s District 9, encampments of people experiencing homelessness are common in downtown-adjacent neighborhoods like Five Points. But recently CdeBaca was trying to arrange trash pickup services for an encampment clustered around the RTD rail tracks near her home in Swansea, a neighborhood on the city’s northern edge. There was a fire in a camp in the same area last spring.
“It is much more dangerous, much more secluded and less likely to be swept,” CdeBaca said of the camp.
“People don’t like looking at it,” she said of the encampments. “We get that. But our policies are putting it right in their alleys. We’re pushing people who can get away deeper into the neighborhoods.”
These city leaders, along with homeless advocates, say the more aggressive tactics in recent years are pushing violators of the nearly 10-year-old camping ban into new territory, farther from the city center.
“Anecdotally, they do exactly what they are intended to do; they move people around and push them out of some neighborhoods and into other neighborhoods,” Colorado Coalition for the Homeless spokeswoman Cathy Alderman said. “And then the people who are subject to those sweeps and subject to those enforcement actions may not want to return to those areas where they were told to move from.”
A person experiencing homelessness covers his …Hyoung Chang, The Denver PostA person experiencing homelessness covers his belongings by the fenced Civic Center Park in Denver on Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022.
It’s not just sweeps, or “cleanups” as city officials call them, that are making the downtown area a more difficult place for unhoused people to be.
Most of Civic Center Park remains closed for restoration work after the city closed it in September because of health and safety concerns there. The Regional Transportation District shut down the public restrooms in the Union Station bus terminal in December, part of an effort to curtail open drug use and other unwanted behavior at that transit hub.
Last fall, the city posted signs around a roughly 10-block portion of Five Points designating the area as a perpetual cleanup zone. Instead of providing seven days’ notice ahead of an enforcement action — a requirement of a federal injunction against the city — the area is now subject to cleanup work at least three times per week. It’s the second zone of its kind in that northeast downtown area, a part of town that is also home to many service providers including the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.
The organization doesn’t necessarily keep maps of established encampments, Alderman said. Outreach teams find out where people are staying through phone calls or walking through places where people are known to gather. The coalition has been an outspoken opponent of the sweeps.
On Monday night and Tuesday morning, officials in the seven-county Denver metro area performed their first in-person point-in-time count of people experiencing homelessness since 2020. Concerns about COVID-19 safety prevented an in-person count last year.

Hyoung Chang, The Denver PostSenior Denver Park Ranger Austin Sankey gathers information for the annual point-in-time count of people experiencing homelessness in the Denver metro area on Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022.
On Monday morning, Austin Sankey, a Denver park ranger who heads the department’s downtown operations, drove down Park Avenue, documenting the number of tents he saw on the side of the busy street and entering them into an online form as part of that point-in-time count. With snow still falling, no people were visible in the clusters of tents so he used the number of structures as an estimate for how many people were living unsheltered in the area.
Sankey said that while park rangers do have the authority to enforce rules in city parks, the roles they more often fill when it comes to encampments are those of first responders and social workers. They connect people with resources like mental health professionals who are part of the city’s STAR (Support Team Assistance Response) team.
“To get adequate resources to people we want to know where they are,” Sankey said of the importance of Tuesday morning’s count. “We’re all just a bunch of like-minded folks that want to see people succeed.”
The Metro Denver Homeless Initiative, the agency that processes data collected from point-in-time counts and other sources, found that of the more than 32,000 people who accessed homelessness services between July 2020 and June 2021, 40% reported being unsheltered as of their last contact with a support agency.
It will take the Metro Denver Housing Initiative some time to process data from the 2022 count. When the data is released to the public this summer, it will be broken out by county but will not provide more specific geographic information about where people are living on the streets, agency spokeswoman Jamie Rife said.
Denver officials used historic averages to estimate how many people were homeless and living on the street instead of using the city’s shelter system last year, said Sabrina Allie, spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Housing Stability, or HOST. Based on those averages, the department projected roughly 1,185 people were living in tents, cars or other impermanent shelters during the winter count in 2021.
The city is still carrying out sweeps on a regular basis. The reasons behind them range from concerns about public health and safety to whether an encampment is blocking a public right of way, Allie said. But sweeps only come after significant outreach from city teams focused on a housing-first strategy.
“One thing you hear a lot about is drug addiction,” Allie said. “There are problems lots of people have that are hard to manage when you don’t have housing that is stable.”
Setup is underway for a homeless …Rachel Ellis, The Denver Post
In this Dec. 3, 2020, setup is underway for a homeless encampment in an empty lot at First Baptist Church on the corner of 14th and Grant Streets in downtown Denver. The site recently moved to the parking lot for the Denver Department of Human Services offices on 3815 Steele St.
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Safe Outdoor Spaces, sanctioned campsites with sturdy tents, bathrooms, lighting and other infrastructure, have emerged as an effective tool for helping people move beyond unsheltered homelessness. They provide more privacy than traditional homeless shelters, allow couples to stay together and welcome pets, breaking down some of the obstacles that lead some people to choose to stay on the street, Allie said.
On Wednesday, the City Council committee focused on homelessness voted in favor of a $3.9 million contract extension with Colorado Village Collaborative, the nonprofit that runs the safe outdoor spaces program. That contract, if approved at a meeting of the entire council, would fund at least four sites in the city with room enough to shelter an estimated 370 people through the end of 2022.
There are three Safe Outdoor Spaces operating in the city today. In addition to more safety and amenities, the sites give people time to breathe and think about what they want to do next, said Tom Luehrs, executive director of the St. Francis Center,a homeless shelter and service provider. The St. Francis Center has already helped 11 people from the site on the Regis University campus into housing and is working on that step with a dozen others, Luehrs said.

Hyoung Chang, The Denver PostSnow covers a tent in the near Park Avenue West in Denver on Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022.
Outreach workers with St. Francis are frequently on hand when the city clears out an encampment, offering help and resources to people including things that can put them on the path to housing, Luehrs said. In his experience, people usually don’t migrate very far after a sweep.
Regardless of how far a person goes, the movement sweeps generate can create problems.
Benjamin Dunning, a co-founder of the advocacy organization Denver Homeless Out Loud, said outreach workers and service providers end up duplicating efforts after sweeps because they lose track of people they were trying to help.
“They connect with somebody and they go back and they’re gone, the tent’s gone, no one knows where they went and it might be weeks or months before anyone catches up with them again so the opportunity to get connected with things they might need goes away a lot of time,” Dunning said. “It makes it harder for the service providers to connect with folks. They end up doing their job two or three times which makes it more expensive, less effective.”

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