Denver, CO

Encampment sweeps sharply divide Denver

David Heitz
Denver Homeless Out Loud

By David Heitz / NewsBreak Denver

(Denver, Colo.) Public comment at the Denver City Council meeting Monday showed the divisiveness of the homeless encampment debate.

Although some residents blasted council members for allowing encampment sweeps, others praised them and asked for more and swifter sweeps.

Dr. Joshua Barocas is a public health researcher and infectious disease physician. The Denver resident called on the council to halt the sweeps given the “devastating effects of displacing people experiencing homelessness.”

According to Barocas, the sweeps may prove a tipping point in stressing an already burdened healthcare system. He said data shows that when crews displace people experiencing homelessness the chances of overdose increase one and a half times. He said research in Boston showed a 12 percent increase in overdose fatalities there after sweeps.

“At a time when our healthcare system is overburdened and on the verge of collapse, it is essential to our survival,” he said of ending the sweeps. He urged the council to work on solutions to homelessness that don’t include sweeps.

Race, class, immigration status an issue

A woman named Maya said the encampment sweeps are “a racial issue, a class issue, and an immigration issue.” She said it’s unfair to treat people experiencing homelessness as a problem when their predicament is the result of failed policies.

She said when city crews destroy tents with backhoes at sweeps the unhoused remain on the street. The difference is they no longer have a tent to stay warm in.

“Maybe if we scare them enough and hurt them enough, they’ll stop being homeless,” appears to be the city’s philosophy, Maya said. Maya said she drove displaced people to crowd-funded hotels. She said she asked an elderly person if she needed anything, and she replied she needs housing.

Debate over homeless encampments increasingly takes up the majority of public comment period at Denver City Council meetings. Only one person spoke Monday on a different topic.

Resident praises police for arresting drug users

Craig Arfsten, who regularly addresses council, was one of two people who praised the city for sweeping the encampments. He said the dwellings breed disease, human waste and prostitution, among other things.

Arfsten said the city’s approach of supplying housing before drug and alcohol rehab, or mental health treatment does not work. “Adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward urban camping, drug use and trafficking,” he suggested.

Terry Hildebrandt, a resident and business owner of the Golden Triangle, agreed. He praised the Denver Police Department for sweeping Union Station. He said the police “work tirelessly to get the unsheltered addicts off the streets.”

Hildebrandt said the city should increase its manpower so it can clear larger encampments. “Demand a zero-tolerance policy for the dangerous drug tents.” He said people should be arrested and put through drug court. Others need to be involuntarily committed for mental illness, he said.

He called having “drug addicts” living together “a fiasco.” He said the city should demand the Department of Housing Stability “stop giving away free apartments without drug treatment.”

Homeless with a master’s degree

Regular commenter David Hagan said an alcoholic or addict only will get sober when they are ready. “When you go into rehab and get returned to the streets you’re going to use over and over again,” he explained. “Harm reduction, housing first … these things work.”

Jerry Burton, a veteran, agreed. “Once you get them in a house you address the barriers or the situation they are in.” He emphasized people experiencing homelessness need housing, not tents or shelters.

Harm reduction is a philosophy that minimizes the damage done by drugs, even if it does not eliminate them. A person might agree to reduce their drug use, for example.

Regular council commenter Tess Dougherty explained not all homeless people fit the stereotypes. “I’m a white able-bodied person with a master’s degree and I became homeless.”

Dougherty became enveloped in grief and homeless after the death of her soul mate. She works as a teacher. During her week of homelessness, she still had to teach virtually. She said a family allowed her online access. “Throw out all of those judgments, please think about the kids, the teacher, the dog.”

She said she slept in her car for a week before obtaining a hotel voucher. “Luckily, I had enough money to cover gas to heat the car.”

Council, police ‘racist’

Only one man spoke on a topic unrelated to encampment sweeps. He called the council and police department racist. He said he wants a $15 million settlement. He walked away from the podium saying, “Pay me, pay me.”

He later began talking loudly during the meeting. Council President Stacie Gilmore asked him to stop talking or leave the chambers.

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I've been in the news business 35 years, spending much of my career at local newspapers. Today, I report on Denver and Aurora city halls for NewsBreak. Prior to joining NewsBreak, I worked several years as a health reporter and branded content writer in the healthcare space. I also worked many years as a news editor and city editor. I consider myself a lucky guy to live in a great place like Denver.

Denver, CO

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