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Against CDC Guidance, Denver Displaces Hundreds Of Homeless People Amid COVID-19 Spike

Cities across the country have continued to displace and criminalize homelessness during the pandemic, though the CDC cautions clearing encampments can heighten the potential for the spread of COVID-19.

In a predawn operation Monday, Denver officials uprooted more than 100 people living in an encampment near the Platte River.(Photo by Helen H. Richardson/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

In the midst of the biggest spike in COVID-19 cases in the United States since the pandemic began, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock ordered police to displace hundreds of homeless people, leaving many with nowhere to go. 

In the early morning hours on Monday, police officers and city workers cleared an encampment in the city’s River North Art District (RiNo). Between 100 and 300 people are estimated to have lived at the encampment near an empty plot of land along the South Platte River. Videos taken by local organizers and activists show city workers throwing tents and belongings left behind into dump trucks.

The city has plans to open two sanctioned encampments with space for 30 to 60 people each, but they’re not open yet.

“If I could go inside, I would, definitely. Give me a house, give me a place to stay, keep me warm. But it’s not that easy,” Sierra Hamilton, who had been living at the encampment, said at a press conference on Saturday. She said she had been there for about a year and had once been contacted by outreach workers about a Section 8 housing lottery that was scheduled to happen a few days later. She said she wasn’t given any assistance applying for it and was only handed a card. She asked reporters gathered at the press conference if there were any other programs that provide housing assistance.  

Before living on the street, Hamilton said she worked at a 7-Eleven to provide for her two sons but could never make ends meet. “At the end of the week, I had bills to pay, and I had no money. But my sons wanted toys and stuff that they’d see on TV. And I felt horrible for not being able to have that extra money to put away, even though … I spent all these hours away from them.” She said she ultimately decided she’d rather be broke but at least get to spend all her time with her children. Her children are now living with her aunt and uncle in South Dakota.

“If they could just dedicate some land or something … then you wouldn’t have to worry about us,” Hamilton said. “Put a designated area where you want us and then you wouldn’t have to see us either. Maybe it could be like a program.” 

Denver police arrested Hamilton on Monday when they cleared the encampment. She was charged with interfering with police authority.

Since March, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that cities allow unsheltered homeless people to remain where they are when individual housing options are not available, since clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the city and can heighten the potential for infectious disease to spread, putting others at risk.

But cities across the country have continually flouted this guidance. In Honolulu, it is illegal to sit or lie on certain sidewalks and public places, and police have conducted dozens of sweeps, citing, arresting, and displacing Honolulu’s homeless population in the middle of a global pandemic. In Phoenix, police and city workers forced hundreds of people out of an encampment close to homeless service providers and installed poles and chains on the easements of the encampment, blocking people from returning to the same spot. And in Portland, Oregon, about 100 people were forced out of an encampment last week, a move that Mayor Ted Wheeler called a “humane response” to homelessness during the pandemic.

The Denver encampment sweep will make it more difficult for the people who were living there to obtain nearby services, which can make it even harder for them to secure housing or jobs. 

“It’s disruptive for them, it’s disruptive for their neighborhoods, and it’s counterproductive,” said Cathy Alderman, vice president of communications and public policy for Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. “By making people move to another location, you are putting people at risk of exposure.”

An official from Denver’s Department of Public Health and Environment told the Denver Westword that the city had several reasons to conduct the sweep: complaints from neighbors, the encampment’s proximity to a waterway, public health concerns, and a recent homicide at the encampment. The mayor’s office did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.

Instead of displacing and criminalizing homeless people, Alderman said the city ought to find a way to work with the unsheltered population to meet them where they are and provide services, like trash pickup, restrooms, sanitation stations, and security. At the start of the pandemic, the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless worked with the Denver City Council and the Hampton Inn to help secure temporary housing in motels for hundreds of people experiencing homelessness. Alderman said a program like that, or other housing methods that look outside the current shelter arrangements, ought to be considered even after the pandemic.

“You can’t punish people when you don’t have the resources to house them,” Alderman said. “What the city needs to do is make investments in housing and incentivize landlords that have empty units” to work with the city to provide housing to those who need it.

There is strong bipartisan support for measures to provide temporary housing to homeless people and limit law enforcement’s ability to clear encampments during the pandemic. Pilot programs conducted in New York City, Vancouver, and Utah have shown that a housing-first approach to homelessness is a cost-effective way to help people get off the streets and back on their feet. Under such an approach, people are provided housing with wrap-around support services, without first needing to meet difficult prerequisites to qualify for housing. This approach recognizes that having stable housing can help people address mental health and substance use issues, and that requiring them to first address these issues to qualify for housing will keep them on the streets.

In Denver, Councilmember Candi CdeBaca, who called the sweeps “inhumane and a violation of poor people’s constitutional rights” has criticized the city’s decision to displace hundreds of people and risk exposing them and city workers who executed the sweeps to potential virus exposure. 

Through a spokesperson, CdeBaca told The Appeal she supports creating more safe outdoor spaces or sanctioned camps as an alternative to conducting sweeps and has called for an eviction moratorium to keep the homelessness crisis from worsening. She has also stressed the need to do more to keep people housed in the first place as a solution to homelessness, and has said the city needs to direct more resources toward getting unhoused people into stable housing.

“I am disgusted by the lack of humanity and lack of effort to implement reasonable solutions that bring every resident in the city into a safe and quarantined environment,” CdeBaca said in a statement released last week.