Denver, CO

Denver spending thousands chasing homeless in circles

David Heitz

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The city of Denver is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on “cleanups” of homeless encampments, disrupting people living on the streets just long enough for them to find a new place to set up camp a few blocks away.

A group of activists called “From Allies to Abolitionists” filed a Colorado Open Records Act request with the city to get receipts from the cleanups. The cost for just seven of the cleanups came to more than $148,000. There were more than 30 sweeps in 2020, according to a report prepared by the activist group.

The group came up with its totals based on city employee work time and other costs. The sweeps ranged from $2,600 to $39,000 each. The number of displaced people ranged from 50 to 300 per sweep.

Environmental Hazmat Services Inc. provided trucks and cleanup services at the sweeps. But the biggest cost came from police salaries. Between 3 and 60 police officers were present at each sweep, according to the group’s analysis.

At the end of the day, the city spent between $38 and $794 per displaced person on the sweeps.

“The cost calculations reflect a conservative, minimum dollar amount of what is being spent, as a great many costs are not accounted for,” the report states.

Homeless sweeps spread disease

The sweeps literally amount to chasing the homeless in circles. Public health officials say the sweeps help spread disease. The homeless encampments are veritable Petri dishes. Many of them do not have restroom facilities nearby. Some residents of the encampment defecate into grocery bags or urinate into soda bottles.

On Tuesday, the Denver City Council agreed to pump almost $900,000 into two sanctioned outdoor tent communities for the homeless. These encampments serve 100 homeless households and are in the Capitol Hill area.

The encampments are comprised of heavy-duty tents with heated floors. Residents of the sanctioned encampments receive mental health and other services. Toilets and showers are available. Case workers help the homeless find permanent housing.

Sweeps cause caseworkers to lose touch with homeless

Moving forward, From Allies to Abolitionists has asked the city to begin tracking the exact costs of the cleanups.

The group called its report detailing the costs of seven cleanups “Message to the Mayor No. 2.” In the report, From Allies to Abolitionists points out that the sweeps separate homeless people from case workers. Case workers generally beat the bushes in homeless encampments and try to forge relationships with homeless people and help them.

But when homeless people constantly are being shooed away from one spot or another, or being arrested for petty crimes, the social workers lose contact. It becomes a never-ending dead-end cycle of hopelessness for people experiencing homelessness.

“Finding a single unhoused individual once they’ve moved to a new camp can be a major challenge, but disruptions also can cause ‘system fatigue’ if they begin to feel that they’re constantly starting over with new caseworkers,” according to the report. “Finally, even if a caseworker can establish a long-term connection with someone on the street, there aren’t always ideal solutions to funnel people toward.”

More than 200 homeless died in Denver in 2020

According to the report, more than 200 people experiencing homelessness died in Denver in 2020. “Our unhoused neighbors are suffering from hunger, dehydration, malnutrition, fatigue, anxiety, heatstroke, frostbite, loss of fingers, toes and limbs, hypothermia, and in some cases, ultimately, death.”

The displacements, the group says, make it even harder for people experiencing homelessness to survive.

The group also criticized the city for its heavy use of police during sweeps. The report shows a picture of 14 police officers at one scene where only one resident was being displaced.

“Providing simple things like routine trash service and access to water and bathrooms could easily and much more cost effectively and humanely address many of the concerns around homelessness.”

As someone who has experienced homelessness in Denver, I must say the report by the activist group is completely accurate. If basic human needs such as water, restrooms, and trash removal are not provided, the homeless situation will continue to resemble a malaise.

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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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