Denver, CO

What really happens at Denver homeless encampment sweeps

David Heitz

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A backhoe scoops up encampments at 22nd and Washington streets in Denver.Photo/Denver Homeless Out Loud

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock’s office calls them “cleanups.”

The name alone carries incredible stigma. As if the existence of homeless encampments and everything about them is “dirty.”

In fact, many homeless encampments are clean. Sometimes they are close to spotless, but it does not matter. If they’re on public property in Denver, eventually the backhoe will come beeping.

And there goes another three tents scooped up in one long sweep. “Beep, beep, beep!” goes the backhoe as it backs up for another run.

Meantime, the residents of the encampments pick through their belongings. Sometimes the police will harass them about the conditions they have been living in. Many are in shock even though most, if not all, have known for a few days that the “cleanup” was coming.

Denver Homeless Out Loud videos don’t lie

While most people don’t give a second thought as to how the encampments get "cleaned up," a group called Denver Homeless Out Loud records it all.

Angry cops. Angry people experiencing homelessness, many with disabilities. A wheelchair mixed in with a pile of rubbish.

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An encampment at 25th and Arapahoe appears tidy before a sweep.Photo/Homeless Out Loud

There’s no denying what goes on during the sweeps with Denver Homeless Out Loud there recording everything. You can find video of most every sweep during the past several months on the Denver Homeless Out Loud Facebook page.

Sometimes the person making the videos, Ana, will interact with police and ask questions. “Are you going to destroy their belongings?” she may ask. The law says the belongings are to be stored when the sweeps occur, but that’s not usually what happens.

How some can legally possess needles

At one recent sweep, police ask a displaced resident about drug paraphernalia found at this camp. He becomes flustered and says he inherited the tent.

One of the Homeless Out Loud advocates begins to tell the cop the displaced man “has a card.” The card he indeed ended up having is from Harm Reduction Center. Harm Reduction Center does outreach for drug users. They operate as a needle exchange and can legally give clients with cards needles.

The clients legally can have the needles on their person if they have a card showing they are a client of the Harm Reduction Center.

“Thank God for Harm Reduction Center” says someone on the video, adding people “don’t have to be criminalized for having coping mechanisms for their trauma.”

An officer tells Ana, “I’m sorry I was short with you, he’s got to give me a straight answer and he wasn’t. But he had the card so he’s OK.”

The man pushed from the encampment normally wears eyeglasses and was flustered without them. Ana told police he needed a bus pass to go get his eyeglasses and later would be coming back for his tent and other belongings. He was going to meet a friend with a truck, she said.

Forty people displaced last week alone

The Denver Homeless Out Loud Facebook page offers meticulous records and videos of the sweeps. For this past week, the organization posted that 40 people were “traumatically displaced.” The sweeps occurred at 10th and Cherokee, 11th and Speer, 19th and Emerson and 22nd and Washington.

The sweeps begin at 6 a.m. The “Beep, beep, beep” of the backhoe proves an intrusive wake-up call. Residents know what is coming and many still have no place to go.

Some are offered temporary shelter. Many decline the invitation, as the conditions at shelters aren’t suitable for them. Some people have pets, spouses, and partners, which aren’t allowed at shelters. Or some people don’t want to lie on a floor with bugs crawling out of the cracks.

Some people experiencing homelessness are hardcore drug addicts who prefer to stay outside. But as someone who has experienced homelessness in Denver, I believe that is not the majority, contrary to popular opinion.

Some people experiencing homelessness say they never even tried drugs before becoming homelessness. Uppers like meth keep people in encampments awake. People often are afraid to fall asleep due to theft, assault, and other crimes.

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A backhoe destroys a tent in good condition.Photo/Denver Homeless Out Loud

It’s one more reason why people need housing first and then rehab, advocates say. It’s hard to get a handle on your life when you have no place to call home. It’s the kind of chaotic instability that does not lend itself to a healthy lifestyle.

Permanent housing inspires success stories

Nothing gets better until there’s permanent housing. My life has flourished since getting housing from Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. I work and pay rent. The stability of housing allowed me to get my life and career back on track.

When people who have been written off succeed, it’s a win-win. And homeless people do rebuild their lives.

Daniel Craig, the modern-day James Bond, used to sleep on park benches in London, according to Business Insider. The site reported actress Halle Berry stayed in a Chicago homeless shelter for a while as a struggling actress.

Other famous once-homeless people? "Singer Ella Fitzgerald was abused, had Mafia ties, and was homeless before becoming the 'Queen of Jazz,' Business Insider reported.

And "After being fired, Jewel was homeless for about a month and almost died in a parking lot."

Denver Homeless Out Loud Facebook page changing opinions

The comments on the Homeless Out Loud Facebook page mostly are compassionate. Be they doctors, teachers, or something else, Homeless Out Loud has several professionals as volunteers. Some come just to offer a truck to those being displaced.

It is no longer a secret that most people just move a few blocks away, setting up camp all over again.

Aurora Mayor Michael Coffman claims homeless people make their own messes. He went “undercover” as a person experiencing homelessness and said most people he met preferred life on the streets.

He wants to enact a camping ban like Denver’s in Aurora. But most of that city council seems to oppose the idea.

During its most recent council meeting, Aurora City Councilwoman Nicole Johnston said she heard one Colorado mayor say Denver’s ban may not hold up in court. That’s because Denver does not have enough shelter space for its homeless population.

A federal judge already has ordered the city of Los Angeles to house its homeless people. The city has aggressively been trying to do that.

Denver voters: Keep your tent out of my face

Denver’s camping ban so far has held up in court. It once was struck down, but an appeals court reinstated it. Advocates for the homeless vowed to take the case to the Colorado Supreme Court.

Given the national conversation about homelessness, you can bet it’s a challenge that’s not going to resolve itself soon. Denver voters, while painted as bleeding-heart liberals, already voted to keep the camping ban once. The homeless know what people in Denver really think: Keep your tent out of my face.

The sweeps truly do employ an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality not becoming of a world-class city. Meantime, the problem of homelessness festers.

Look at the videos on the Denver Homeless Out Loud Facebook page. See how they make you feel. It may change the way you believe about people experiencing homelessness.

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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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