Denver, CO

Public health staff snubs board on homelessness

David Heitz

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Organizations that oversee public health generally answer to boards which either are appointed by elected officials or elected.

So, it was a slap in the face when staff from the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment (DDPHE) refused to answer the board in a letter asking what their powers are over homeless encampment sweeps.

“What is the board’s role/authority in regard to these issues?” the board asks in a letter made available to the news media by the homeless advocacy group Denver Homeless Out Loud.

“This is a question for your Board attorney,” the board bluntly answered, offering no additional information.

The board made the letter available to Homeless Out Loud. The board sent several probing questions to staff about policies related to the homeless encampment sweeps.

The board asked:

“What does DDPHE see as its role in serving Denver's homeless population?

“Advocates suggest that there is finger-pointing among City agencies regarding who makes the call for the sweeps. Is there a multi-agency group that discusses strategy and alternatives prior to executing the sweep or when it appears encampments may be getting to the point where a sweep may become necessary?

“Who makes the call to perform a sweep? How is it decided to be a necessary step?

“How is it (encampment sweeps) decided to be a necessary step?”

Staff responses chock full of attitude

The staff’s response is written in an almost smart-alecky tone. “If ‘it’ refers to regular cleaning and maintenance done by Department of Transportation and Infrastructure (DOTI) to remove trash, clean sidewalks, and other rights-of-way, including sanitization, it is determined to be a necessary step when encamped areas have a preponderance of litter and debris, and have humans living in these areas. We also consider complaints about conditions from the public.

“If ‘it’ refers to large-scale cleanups performed by DOTI, it is determined to be a necessary step when encamped areas have a preponderance of litter and debris, have humans living in these areas, and have items encumbering or blocking the right-of-way, impacting access to all. We also consider complaints about conditions from the public.

“If ‘it’ refers to a temporary area restriction, it is determined to be necessary step when significant public health and environmental risks are found to exist based on the evaluation of conditions by public health professionals and a recommendation the Executive Director of DDPHE (who is also the City’s Public Health Administrator).

“If it is determined that the location presents significant public and environmental health risks due to unsafe conditions associated with litter, pests, human waste, and biohazards, Public Health Investigations and the city’s Public Health Administrator (Executive Director of DDPHE) will enact a temporary area restriction necessary to immediately remediate the location.”

The staff response said factors used to evaluate an area for public and environmental health impacts include:

• “Litter, including food, that attracts bugs and pests as well as causes odors.

• “Human and pet waste, which contribute to the spread of disease and impacts water quality.

• “Needles and other drug paraphernalia that are improperly discarded, creating risks to people living in and visiting the area, to the general public, and to workers tasked with cleaning the area.”

According to staff, “DDPHE regularly works with other city departments, including DOTI, with the hope that encampments with deteriorating conditions may be addressed through other measures, such as a DOTI large-scale enforcement cleanup, without imposing more restrictive area conditions. Only when conditions deteriorate to the point that such conditions significantly impact public health and/or the environment come into play does DDPHE contemplate the need to impose an area restriction.”

Advocacy group says responses evasive

According to Denver Homeless Out Loud, DDPHE’s staff answers are riddled with misinformation. In a follow up letter to the board, the organization explained what they see go on at the sweeps.

“Thank you for sharing the questions you posed to DDPHE staff and their responses. And thank you for holding DDPHE accountable to their responsibility to the health and safety of Denver residents, including the unhoused,” Denver Homeless Out Loud wrote.

“Your questions are right on point, and we wanted to answer your questions with some corrections to DDPHE’s answers. Our answers come from years of direct experience at sweeps and encampments, as well as surveys and communication with hundreds of unhoused encampment residents. We would be glad to meet to discuss any of these issues further.”

Homeless Out Loud noted that DEPHE staff danced around several of the board’s questions without answering. “The reason you have not heard about upstream or midstream support for encampments sanitation needs (like trash pickup, bathrooms, water, etc.) is because they are not something DDPHE or any government agency provides. The only sanitation resource support which has been provided to encampments has been from community groups like us in DHOL, Mutual Aid Denver, Water Protectors, and other community support.”

What’s more, Homeless Out Loud wrote, “On top of not addressing any upstream sanitation needs, DDPHE has actively worked against those who are working to meet those needs by having portable toilets, which we as DHOL paid for at some encampments, removed.”

Denver Homeless Out Loud relentlessly engages city staff on issues of importance to people experiencing homeliness. Their stalwart advocacy keeps city staff on its toes.

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I have been in the news business more than 30 years, spending much of my career at some of the best newspapers in the country. Today, I specialize in Denver local news, health reporting, social justice issues, addiction/recovery/mental health news, and topics surrounding homelessness and human trafficking.

Denver, CO
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