Why Denver homeless encampment ‘clean-ups’ became so controversial

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DENVER (KDVR) — The legal battle over how the City of Denver conducts clean-ups around homeless camps will eventually stop, says one attorney, when every homeless person has access to affordable housing.

“The end game of the lawsuits is for the sweeps to stop,” said Andy McNulty, a Denver civil rights attorney who has been instrumental in the legal battle over how the city clears homeless encampments from public rights of way. “The end game of this entire fight is for everyone to have a house to come home to.”

McNulty said paying contractors and city workers hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to continuously clean up these areas is a “waste of city money.”

McNulty, who is actively involved in a related lawsuit against the City of Denver, also helped argue a 2016 case in federal court in which plaintiffs alleged the city had been pushing homeless people around the city to make room for more economic development.

The suit argued the city’s camping ban, passed in 2012, was leading to the abuse of people’s rights.

“Defendants have engaged in a systemic evisceration of thousands of displaced persons’ constitutional rights in order to clear the way for new housing and economic development in the Downtown Denver area,” the suit said. “While gentrification may have positive benefits for a few, it is not a legal basis for treating this vulnerable class as though their civil rights were nonexistent.”

In 2019, the city settled the suit, paying $30,000 to five plaintiffs and $550,000 in plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees. The City of Denver also agreed to provide at least seven days’ notice prior to a large-scale sidewalk clean-up, and the city now provides access to storage for people who may be displaced or affected by a clean-up.

“I wouldn’t say that we’re in a better place. I would say that there are more protections for unhoused folks, so they don’t have their property taken and summarily thrown away,” said McNulty. “The city knows that someone is watching, so that’s a helpful thing.”

Denver Mayor suggests ‘counter effort’ to force city into court: ‘Who is funding these encampments?’

Mayor Michael Hancock defended the city’s clean-ups and questioned why so many people continue to camp on sidewalks when they know clean-ups are coming.

“I think we need to ask the question, ‘Who is funding these encampments?’” Hancock said.  “These are $400-$500 tents that are being used in these encampments. The City of Denver is working every day to house and connect these individuals with services, but I do believe in my heart that there is a counter effort to try and force Denver into an action that brings us into court that will outlaw anything that we do,” he said.  “I think that the media and our critics are asking the wrong question.  I think we, as a public, need to start asking, ‘Where is this coming from?’”

Hancock said the clean-ups, for which the city has spent more than $400,000 so far in 2021, are not a homeless initiative but rather a public safety and health initiative.

He said many of the people who are offered services at the encampments do not accept services or shelter when it is offered.

Hancock called the encampments on city sidewalks “contrived.”

“If I’m homeless, and I know Denver or any municipality or government institution does not want me on its corner, I’m not going to set up and be visible on that corner,” said the Mayor. “I’m going to try to find a place to go where I can be in peace and get the rest I’m looking for or go into a shelter, but that’s not what’s happening.  You’ve got to stop and ask, you know, something else is going on here, and I don’t consider this homelessness,” Hancock said.

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

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