Denver, CO

Formerly homeless Denver journalist describes police beatings, street horrors

David Heitz

Stock image courtesy of Visuals for Unsplash

Monday probably will be another frightening day for Denver’s homeless. The city again plans to sweep through one of their encampments and run them off, according to Westword.

I know what they’re going through. I spent two years homeless in Denver.

Nobody ever thought I would become homeless.

After all, I have a strong writing background and a great career. I am college-educated and grew up in a modest working-class family.

But when somebody in Illinois shot my house up twice after I wrote about human trafficking, it changed my life. I was inside the house in bed both times the house was shot at. The shooter aimed directly for the bedrooms both times.

Both times it scared the hell out of me. Recurring nightmares of the incident have gone away since being prescribed a medication called Prazosin.

For several years before that, I served as my father’s caregiver. He suffered from a rare brain disease called frontotemporal degeneration. He died a slow, horrible, death spending the last several years in the fog of dementia.

He used to call me names and chase me with a butcher knife. He could not help it.

Eventually, dad went into memory care. I visited twice a day, every day, but it really tore me up.

Then my 24-year-old cat died.

In the middle of it all, I got sober and no longer had any friends. That’s my own fault. I did not care for AA and did not meet many sober people.

Untreated PTSD, bipolar mania leads to homelessness

I wound up with chronic-complex PTSD. It got to where I was too scared to leave the house.

I decided to move to Denver. But by then the unmedicated PTSD and bipolar mania had caused me to ramp up even further. When I got to Denver, I believed the neighbors were after me and I called the police. The police put me in a mental hospital. They thought the story of my house being shot up sounded crazy.

Someone on two separate nights fired bullets into the siding of my home in 2015. The bullets did not penetrate the house but left clear holes. Both times I had been sleeping. The house alarm went off the first time. The second time I had forgot to set it, but the impact of the bullet caused the blind in my bedroom to fly up. It was horrifying and until starting a medication called Prazosin it gave me nightmares for years afterward. Below, the shooter appeared to try to pull the siding off, perhaps to retrieve a bullet. A police report was filed and I received about $1,000 in insurance money.

They said I was “delusional.”

When I got out of the hospital, I was too frightened to return to my Glendale apartment. I fled and left everything inside, including thousands of dollars of new furniture, clothes and electronics.

I then began to stay in luxury hotels, including The Art hotel and Hyatt downtown..

Eventually I blew through $77,000 in a matter of months. Classic bipolar mania. By December 2018, I was living on the street.

I had been thrown out of the shelters for various reasons. The shelters are extremely dangerous. In some ways, the street was better.

Police frequently harass homeless people

The scariest people when you’re homeless in Denver? The police. They beat me up multiple times, and then had the gall to charge me with assault.

This is my mug shot taken after police beat me up. This picture was taken after I first went to the hospital and had my face worked on for three hours

This is a common story. My ID also disappeared after a run-in with police. Due to red tape and COVID, I still don’t have an ID two years later. This is common among homeless people in Denver. It also is common that IDs disappear after run-ins with police.

Without an ID, you can’t even collect your monthly state disability aid. At least that’s what Denver Human Services told me. A case worker for Colorado Coalition for the Homeless recently told me that’s not true.

Back to my most recent beating by police (they have beaten me up multiple times). I had fallen asleep along the bike path behind Crossroads Homeless Shelter last October. The night before had been a low of 9 degrees and the sidewalk had been freezing all night.

The police approached me saying I was in violation of the camping ordinance. But I wasn’t camping – I fell asleep in the park. The police know this is the truth.

According to my attorney, “I don’t like how the police treated you on that camera.” Well no, he shouldn’t. They called me “faggot” and beat me up so bad I was taken to the hospital in an ambulance.

I once served as executive news editor of the historic Advocate magazine. Some people call The Advocate the founder of the gay rights movement. How humiliating to be called that, by police, in 2020.

I served as executive news editor of historic Advocate magazine in 1997. It is appaling to me that police in a major city would call anyone a "faggot" in 2020.

Homelessness is not illegal. People with mental illness should not be beaten and jailed by police just because they are homeless.

So many beatings by police, fellow homeless

The street is dangerous. I have known people who have been murdered. A guy I used to call “The Ethiopian Prophet” comes to mind. He was murdered right in the area where I used to sleep, behind Crossroads homeless shelter.

Danger greets you around every corner. Sometimes homeless people are territorial and will shoo you away if you try to stop and rest. Once I had a young man whack me across the head with skateboard. He said I walked too close to his suitcase.

There is almost nowhere to get a drink of water or go to the bathroom. The public fountains at the parks and transit centers hadn’t worked for months when I was assaulted by police and jailed last year.

City removes outhouse from outside homeless shelter

When the city bought the property at Salvation Army Crossroads Homeless Shelter, the first thing they did was remove the outhouse. Why in the world would they remove a public restroom in an area filled with people camping on the street?

News reports say the camping spots are COVID disasters. Police are going through and shooing everyone away in sweep after sweep. Homeless people will just camp a few blocks down the road.

Imagine if the city arranged to have hand sanitizer distributed to all the homeless. I have been told they won’t give out hand sanitizer because homeless people drink it.

Imagine if they made sure public restrooms worked and allowed the homeless to use them. They could even wash their hands if the city simply kept the soap dispensers filled.

And how about putting the outhouse back in the Crossroads courtyard area? Why in the world would you remove a restroom in an area populated by hundreds of homeless people?

It makes no sense. The homeless people viewed it as a mean, hateful move by the city

Denver homeless often charged with crimes

My story is not unique. Ask any homeless person about police rousing you from sleep in the middle of the night. Many are extremely unprofessional and combative. Again, I was beaten so badly I was taken by ambulance to the hospital before they threw me in jail, and later the state mental hospital.

Stock image by Camilo Jimenez for Unsplash. I was beaten so badly by Denver police I was taken by ambulance to the hospital before being taken to jail. A doctor worked on my face for three hours.

They said I “donkey kicked” one officer and spat in another officer’s face.

This is not true. They said I kicked the camera off the cop’s shoulder.

I have not even seen the video. In fact, my attorney has not shared any of the discovery process with me. I don’t really feel like a priority. I am very scared about court Thursday.

The Thursday hearing will determine whether the police ever should have approached me in the first place. If they did not have probable cause, the case may be thrown out. Otherwise, they have offered me a plea. If I plead guilty to misdemeanor assault, they will drop the two felony assault charges.

I am not sure how to express how I feel about this. I had filed formal complaints with the police department (I have the records) about the first- and second-times officers had beaten me up. This marked the third time.

Why should I plead guilty to assault when I’m the one who was assaulted?

Not only have Denver Police frequently been accused of abusing the homeless, but they’ve made headlines for allegedly roughing up journalists, too. Check out this story by a reporter for Colorado Independent. She was handcuffed for videotaping cops razzing a mentally ill naked man.

In August, Denver Police arrested four protestors who showed up to support the homeless as cops ran them off from the intersection of 22nd and Stout, according to KUSA 9 News. One, like myself, was charged with assault on a peace officer.

First police beating comes after I loudly support President Trump

The first time police beat me up, I also had been sleeping. I had fallen asleep in the courtyard of Cathedral Basilica. I had been very triggered all day and behaving strangely.

I marched past Civic Center Park at high noon chanting, “Trump! Trump! Trump!”

Somebody called police, and they tracked me down in the church courtyard.

“Dave” who runs the 8 a.m. sandwich line for the homeless said the police never should have come onto their property because nobody from the church called them.

Later, I was told by someone involved in an organization called Denver Cop Watch that they had video of the church beating. Apparently, someone at McDonald’s, across the street, watched it go down.

I have no idea whether anyone at Crossroads homeless shelter has video of the beating, but I suspect they do. It took place as hundreds of men lined up to enter the shelter for the night. My fellow homeless looked in terror as I screamed and cried, “Stop beating me! Somebody please help me!”

Police exonerate themselves in mis-addressed letter

I support President Trump because he is doing all he can to wipe human trafficking off the planet. I have written extensively about human trafficking. I can think of nothing more horrifying.

I also have known several human trafficking victims myself. They are everywhere in the homeless community.

When police sent me a letter exonerating themselves of my alleged abuse, they addressed it to “Mr. Simms.”

Mr. Simms owned the gay bar in my hometown Rock Island, Ill., for many years. I am not sure if that was another slam on my sexuality or what. Maybe just a bizarre coincidence.

A sloppy error that shows disrespect, nonetheless.

Police had charged me with disturbing the peace and false information to a peace officer the first time. Those charges later were dropped.

Denver homeless population tops 31,000

The Denver Homeless population has topped 31,000, according to statistics cited by KDVR Fox 31. COVID may bump that population up by 40 or 50 percent, the story warned.

The current situation is untenable. There are not nearly enough shelter beds.

Stock image courtesy Jon Tyson for Unsplash. I slept on benches like this when lucky enough to find one. In Denver, most bus benches are divided into three seats so homeless people cannot lie down.

But there is hope for homeless people. Colorado Coalition for the Homeless saved my life.

A social worker in the state mental hospital worked with the Coalition to house me in a converted Denver hotel for the homeless. There are several housing options like this through the Coalition, but the waiting list is long.

I get intensive care where I live. A doctor stops by once a week, a social worker three times per week. We have armed security in the building. The case workers have offices on site.

It can be an interesting place. But most people here are so grateful to be off the street it’s heartwarming.

Human trafficking a big problem among homeless

It is surreal that someone who writes about human trafficking would end up homeless. Trafficking in the U.S. thrives on the homeless population.

Stock image courtesy Tim Tebow Foundation for Unsplash.

I believe housing should be a fundamental human right. The rebound I have made since getting into the Coalition’s restoration program has been remarkable. I am working, exercise daily, and generally am in good spirits.

If you see a homeless person today, please let them know somebody cares about them. You would be surprised how much better it makes them feel.

As for police brutality in Denver, people are sick of it and the director of public safety has taken notice. He has vowed reform, according to Denverite.

“We owe it to our children and their children to make sure that the experiences that they have with race relations, discrimination and injustice is vastly different from the experiences of our generation and the ancestors before us,” Murphy Robinson said. “To do this, I believe that we must shut our mouths and open our ears, ready to hear the community and how they want policing and criminal justice and the system to look in the 21st century.”

I hope they don’t forget all the homeless people like me charged with crimes they didn’t commit.

Comments / 6

Published by

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

More from David Heitz

Comments / 0