Denver, CO

Opinion: Feds patrolling Union Station long overdue

David Heitz

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The feds are going to begin patrolling Union Station. It is infested with drug dealers and people who like to fight.

Some of them are homeless. Many are mentally ill. Most are both.

In a memo to Union Station employees dated June 29, RTD chief Debra Johnson outlined the problem and the measures RTD will take to solve it.

“Public spaces and services throughout the Denver metro region, particularly those areas in Denver’s urban core and including Denver Union Station, its bus concourse, and the adjoining platforms and pavilions, have recently been harshly impacted by individuals engaging in unwanted activities, including illicit drug use and the sale of those drugs, vandalism, prolific littering, and acts of aggression and violence,” the memo reads.

“RTD is partnering with the Department of Homeland Security’s Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in its deployment of Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response (VIPR) teams to Denver Union Station, its bus concourse, and surrounding areas…VIPR personnel are TSA employees who support all modes of transportation to augment security though highly visible operations to help detect and deter suspicious or dangerous activity in various transportation modes.”

Homeless risk lives staying warm at Union Station

Homeless people know how dangerous Union Station is. I experienced homelessness in 2019 as the result of untreated mental illness. I went through great trauma during my father’s final years and after his death. I did not take care of myself.

I ended up moving from Illinois to Denver with quite a bit of money but blew through it quickly. I was out of my mind. Literally. I went from living in an apartment in Glendale to staying in expensive hotels to making Union Station home base when the money ran out.

When I became completely drained of money, I had no idea where to go. It was December and it was cold. I knew Union Station was open and had restrooms.

For the first few months of homelessness, I would sit in Union Station and stick to myself. But after a while, guards would ask why I did not board a bus. They became aggressive in their enforcement of not allowing people to sleep in the transit station. If you fell asleep (and I often did) they would bang their keys on the metal benches upon which you sit, right next to your head sometimes.

Security guards did nothing about drug use

What always got me about the security staff at Union Station is that they would be harassing people for sleeping while the drug dealers ruled the restroom. Forget actually using the restroom – all stalls always were occupied with injection drug users. It sounds like things are even worse now.

No, security usually did nothing about the dangerous restroom and instead harassed homeless people. Many of them were incredibly rude and demeaning. All the while, drug dealers ran the restroom. Security did nothing about it. Sometimes they never entered it for hours.

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If the current security team is anything like those present when I frequented Union Station, they need some brass looking over their shoulders. In the wee hours, these guys would revel in insulting people experiencing homelessness. The drug dealers in the restroom would turn deals all the while.

Knives pulled on me twice in restroom

The drug dealers didn’t like me. Somebody said I was a narc. So, my life was threatened several times in the restroom at Union Station and knives were pulled on me twice there. It became way too dangerous of a place for me to be, so I migrated to the Platte River. It was February and it was very cold outside.

Having federal employees at Union Station hopefully will increase accountability among the other security officers. I get that their job is incredibly dangerous, but it’s the job they signed up for. You can’t let the drug dealers rule the roost, and that’s exactly what was going on at Union Station in 2019 when I experienced homelessness.

More effective security needed at all hours

The federal VIPR officers will “create a calm atmosphere and sense of overall protection by their overt presence and coordination,” Johnson writes in the memo. Problem is, the team only will be present during daylight hours, according to the memo.

VIPR teams need to be present around the clock at Union Station to get a handle on what’s going on there. I hope they don’t bother the homeless people, however, who are just warming up and trying to safely using the restroom.

The drug dealers in the restroom may be homeless, but they are violent. Many homeless people who hang out at Union Station are quiet. They just want to rest.

Employees may refuse work

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The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1001, which represents Union Station employees, today posted a notice on their website. “We have the legal right to refuse work in the unsafe working conditions at Union Station,” the flier reads. “Employers have an obligation to provide a safe workplace and when their employers fail to meet their obligation, we have the right to refuse unsafe work.”

The flier lists the rules for refusing work. It ends, “This is not a game or a ploy. If we do not take action to security our safety, we may die waiting for RTD to do it for us.”

Yep, that’s pretty much how I felt, too, at Union Station.

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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 local newspapers in the country. Today, I report on Denver City Hall, homelessness and other topics for NewsBreak, much like I did in my twenties covering Newport Beach, Calif. for the Daily Pilot. I consider myself a lucky guy to still be doing what I love after so many years.

Denver, CO
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