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DENVER (KDVR) — The Denver metro area is in the grips of a homelessness problem that only seems to be growing, and although money is flowing to it, solutions seem evasive.

There are more homeless people here now than ever before, and more of them are chronically homeless than ever before.

The FOX31 Problem Solvers spent months interviewing homeless people, homelessness advocates and nonprofits, police and city officials about the depths and possible fixes of one of the city’s most visible issues. Throughout the metro area, residents walk through entire blocks of homeless encampments that are occasionally swept by city workers, only to appear again.

How much does each homeless cleanup cost?

The city of Denver spent approximately $400,000 through September 2021 to clean and manage homeless encampments and to remove homeless-related trash and hazardous materials from other areas around the city. 

“It does make a difference in that we can get in there and thoroughly clean,” said Nancy Kuhn, a spokesperson for the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure, the city department that manages and executes the homeless cleanups.  

“We wouldn’t want that condition to continue and continue and continue, so we want to get in there and pick up some trash and feces and needles, and clear the sidewalk area, so it’s got to be cleaned up,” she said. 

The department has not kept a running tally of the cleanups, nor does it track the exact cost of each, so the Problem Solvers filed a public records request and analyzed the 7-day cleanup warning notices it has posted and the related invoices it has received since 2020. 

Based on the documents provided by the city, a FOX31 review found the majority of the $398,109.14 the city paid to an environmental services contractor, Environmental Hazmat Services, Inc, covered at least 43 cleanups in 2020, as well as other homeless-related trash removals and other hazardous materials concerns. 

In 2021, the city conducted approximately 73 cleanups and paid $396,756.91, through the end of September. The fees covered the costs of the encampment cleanups and other related trash removal and hazmat concerns. 

After the Problem Solvers inquired about the lack of specificity within the invoices, a DOTI spokesperson, Nancy Kuhn, said, “We are working to redesign the EHS invoices so that these different activities are documented/broken out so that we can report out on a more granular level.”

In September, the bi-weekly invoices started to be issued on a daily basis, with more specificity about the nature of each cleanup, the location, and the activities for which the city is being billed. 

The city also pays approximately $2,800 per cleanup for fencing and approximately $200 per cleanup for barricades.  

In 2020, that would be approximately $129,000. In 2021, the cost so far is $219,000. 

According to Kuhn, DOTI made three “expansion requests” related to cleanups in the 2022 budget.  

Those include: 

  • $394,503 for six new full-time employees 
  • $500,000 to guide mitigation plans to address illegal dumping and safety issues                 
  • $200,000 to cover the cost of supplies such as fencing and barricades to facilitate health and safety in right of way. 

Kuhn said outreach workers try to visit the cleanup sites days ahead of the event to help connect people with services and shelter options.   

For example, at a September cleanup near Seventh Avenue and Grant Street, near Capitol Hill, Kuhn said outreach workers visited the site seven times prior to the official cleanup, but only one person accepted assistance securing a safe outdoor housing space, and no one accepted shelter. 

“No one wants people sleeping on the street. No one wants that for anybody, so as many times as we can get people indoors, that’s the goal, you know, sleeping indoors,” she said.

Where do most of the sidewalk camping cleanups occur?

The same data when analyzed by the Problem Solvers showed city cleanups repeatedly target the same areas.

In 2020, nearly half of the cleanups, at least 21, targeted an area in the 80205 zip code near a high concentration of homeless service providers, including the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, a Denver Rescue Mission shelter and the Salvation Army Family Services building.

The cleanups occurred at least 21 times in the area bound by Welton Street, Curtis Street, Park Ave and 20th Street, plus a few nearby intersections. The same region has been a target approximately nine times in 2021.

So far this year, the city targeted an area near Capitol Hill, between Second Avenue, 11th Avenue, Logan Street and Cherokee Street at least 15 times.

“We’ll have outreach workers come out — try to connect people to services and shelter to see if we can get them motel rooms or in shelter,” Kuhn said. The goal is “to find a place for them to be inside.”

Kuhn said there are “plenty” of shelter beds available for people who want them. 

However, homeless advocates say the cleanups are detrimental for the people who are living in tents. 

“This doesn’t actually remove people from the streets permanently,” said Ana Cornelius, a homeless advocate who represents Denver Homeless Out Loud

Cornelius told the Problem Solvers city cleanups displace people who are already experiencing trauma and chaos in their lives.

“If you don’t have a safe space, it’s really difficult to do anything else,” she said.  

Frequently moving them from their living space may disrupt their ability to connect with services, she said. Some people may lose track of important documents, like identification.  

She said this happened at a recent camp that was cleaned up. 

“Because they’ve been swept and they continue to be swept three times a week, they cannot connect to those services, and so these actions are directly exacerbating the problem,” she said. “This is a very expensive and traumatic non-solution.”

“The city is allowing a public health emergency to occur rather than mitigating conditions before they become one, and then conveniently coming through and removing everyone as a way to appease public opinion,” said Cornelius. “But this doesn’t actually remove people from the streets permanently. It just moves it to another neighborhood.”

“Cleaning up encampments is not a homeless initiative,” said Denver Mayor Michael Hancock. He described the process as a “health and safety issue.”

Mayor Hancock plans to bring in civilian force 

The Problem Solvers asked Mayor Michael Hancock to respond to the suggestion that the cleanups might be exacerbating the homeless issue rather than helping it.  

“We are not out there trying to permanently displace people, permanently disconnect people from their papers or possessions. That’s not what we want,” Hancock said. “If they would accept services and connectivity, as their advocates say they should have, then we can help them. Don’t encourage them to camp outside. Don’t encourage them to break the law, because that’s exactly what’s going to happen when they do.”

He said many people do not accept services.

And when asked whether the money the city uses to conduct repeat cleanups might be better spent on the “housing first” concept, which prioritizes permanent housing placement before addressing issues like unemployment and addiction, he said some unhoused people do not accept what is offered. 

“We are offering hotel rooms. We are offering vouchers. We are offering transitional housing. So, what’s the alternative when they say, ‘No, I don’t want it?'” he said.  

“The public has been very clear on their mandate to all of us that, ‘We don’t want encampments in the city of Denver,'” Hancock said.   

“We have been constantly working in the laboratory trying to retool and tool how we address the issues of encampments, and that’s why you’re going to see us roll out a civilian force that’s going to hit the streets and go to work with more of a civilian touch first and foremost and not to allow encampments to take hold,” the mayor said of a new idea to have trained civilians take action — before the city does — when they see people setting up tents on public rights of way. 

“Try to address it right there before you come back the next day and you’ve got five tents. Because that’s what we typically see happen,” he said. “But we simply cannot allow encampments to occur when you have alternatives available. And we have alternatives available. For every person we come in contact with, we have a place we can move them and resources available to them.” 

With contributions in reporting from Carisa Scott, Serena Ung and DJ Summers.