The Safety, Housing, Education and Homelessness Committee of the Denver City Council approved Wednesday a contract to remove hazardous materials in the city, including human waste from homeless encampments.
Several members of the council raised concerns about the contract, which the committee agreed to extend for six months. About $3.8 million remains in the on-call contract, according to city staff, because less money than expected has been spent.
The city recently put out to bid the contract for hazardous materials cleanup. Last time only the current vendor, Environmental Hazmat Services, or EHS, applied.
Homeless community: EHS employees rude
Council members expressed concern about the complaints the city has received about the company. Many people experiencing homelessness say the employees are rude during encampment sweeps. City staff said each complaint is investigated.
“This contract and this contractor has been an ongoing source of mistrust that unhoused people have for the city, and I think that unfortunately has been well earned, to be very blunt,” said council member Sarah Parady, who represents Denver at large.
Parady said she is concerned about the degree of power the contractor has over facility management of the only storage place for unhoused people to retrieve their seized belongings. She said the city should hire and train its own HazMat workers.
Sensitivity training required
Will Fenton from the Denver Department of Public Health and environment said the contract now requires EHS employees to go through homelessness sensitivity training. He said EHS employees are not allowed to interact with encampment dwellers without a city employee present.
Fenton said EHS responds within two hours, 24 hours per day, seven days per week, to “urgent” city calls for services That can include impounding a homeless person’s belongings after they are arrested.
Hypodermic needle, RV cleanups
Council member Stacie Gilmore previously expressed concerns about not enough sharps containers being placed around the city for hypodermic needles. Staff explained that portable toilets being provided to large encampments all come with sharps containers.
Besides encampment cleanups, EHS often is used to clean up illegal dumps and even household waste tanks from RVs that people have been occupying. Denver is currently in the process of developing a plan for clearing RV encampments, according to city staff.
In the past council members have said areas swept by EHS still look messy afterward. Fenton said the Department of Transportation Infrastructure now uses a checklist to make sure EHS has thoroughly swept encampments.
Concerns about propane tanks
Council member Darrell Watson asked what the process is for removing propane tanks from encampments. Staff explained that the Fire Department declares the tanks unsafe, and the Department of Public Health and Environment places them for safe keeping. They are later taken to a propane tank reclamation facility. Staff stressed that city employees must be present when EHS takes the tanks so there is no inappropriate interaction with encampment dwellers.
Picking up excrement at parks
Council member Kevin Flynn emphasized that EHS is not used just for encampment sweeps. He said EHS has cleaned up area parks where residents have smoked drugs off picnic tables or defecated on the tennis courts.
Council member Amanda Sawyer told her colleagues that the Harm Reduction Action Center has a team that will come out and rid areas of hypodermic needles. She said it’s a great resource.
The committee approved extending the contract for six months, with Parady voting no. The full City Council will vote on the contract Monday.