Denver Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration is clearing out homeless encampments at a much faster rate than last year, and it worries advocates for the unhoused as the city prepares to host Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game next month.
By July 1, Denver will have conducted more encampment sweeps — or cleanups — so far this year with at least 51 sweeps in six months compared to about 49 in all of 2020, according to data collected by Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca’s office. (The Post counted multi-day sweeps as a single sweep.)
City crews picked up speed in April, the same month MLB said the All-Star Game would come to Denver, with 10 sweeps that month and in May and June, the data shows. It’s unclear whether the increase is connected to the game, warmer spring weather or a waning pandemic.
Nancy Kuhn, spokeswoman for Denver’s Department of Transportation and Infrastructure, which handles the sweeps, said the city’s strategy did not change when Denver was awarded the July 13 game and the preceding fan-related events. Kuhn did not respond to whether CdeBaca’s sweeps data is accurate, and a spokeswoman for Hancock’s office said she did not have that information.
But people experiencing homelessness, advocates on their behalf and CdeBaca say they’re concerned that the national attention brought by the All-Star Game has only heightened the urgency for Hancock’s administration to clear out homeless encampments.
“Out of sight, out of mind,” Latesha Witherspoon said Monday while sitting inside her tent at the intersection of 21st and Arapahoe streets. “It’s depressing, it’s frustrating.”
Witherspoon has been without a home more than a decade, and estimates she’s been forced to move about 100 times in the last four. She shook her head Monday morning, vaped and said she’ll be gone within 24 hours because of a city cleanup that’s scheduled for the intersection. A second sweep will happen this week at the intersection of Park Avenue and 22nd Street, Kuhn said.
Kuhn said more cleanups are happening now because so few happened during the pandemic; she was not able to say how many cleanups the city conducted in 2019 for comparison. The mayor’s office did not respond to questions about the increased number of sweeps, which advocates for the homeless and medical experts believe are costly, inhumane and ineffective.
CdeBaca said she immediately thought about the people experiencing homelessness within her district, which also includes Coors Field, when MLB announced in early April it was moving the game to Denver.
“It’s the perfect excuse for them to do it,” CdeBaca said of the sweeps. “They have to clean up their image, right? The whole purpose of the sweeps is to improve or erase the aesthetic of poverty to drive commerce.”
She also pointed to the increased frequency of the sweeps so far this year and believes the administration’s approach coincides with its plans for the game. Data collected by her office indicates Denver is averaging more than 8 sweeps a month this year compared to the average of more than four a month last year.
One only needs to look at the 2008 Democratic National Convention as an example of Denver sweeping homelessness under the rug, according to Cathy Alderman with the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. She’s the vice president of communications and public policy for the nonprofit, which connects people experiencing homelessness to housing and health care services.
In 2008, city organizations and nonprofits, including the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, offered people experiencing homelessness tickets to the movies, the zoo, local museums and other events. News stories prompted some advocates to accuse Denver officials of attempting to hide the city’s homeless population, though people who coordinated the ticket program (again including the coalition) said it was just as much for the safety and emotional well-being of those living on the streets.
The Denver Rescue Mission, whose Lawrence Street day shelter is a few blocks from Coors Field, isn’t anticipating more guests than normal during the All-Star Game week, spokeswoman Nicole Tschetter said, nor have city officials communicated to the shelter a change in strategy or plans to direct more people there during the events.
Shelters aren’t a viable option for Witherspoon, she said, because people get sick in them or have their belongings stolen. Witherspoon hears complaints often about the encampments, but each sweep means she has to start over — buying new gear and trying to save money to work her way into permanent housing.
“Being homeless is a full-time job,” she said. She’s thinking she’ll move a few blocks away until she’s forced to move again.
City officials are also facing pressure to clear out encampments from constituents, business owners and state officials alike — the All-Star Game notwithstanding. At least two state officials reached out to Denver City Councilman Chris Hinds late last week, according to emails and a voicemail obtained through a public records request.
Bill Ryan, who is the director of Colorado’s State Land Board, emailed about an encampment in south Capitol Hill near 600 Grant St., saying: “This creates huge health and safety issues for the tenants in our building. What can be done to remove this camp immediately?”
Hinds forwarded the message to the mayor’s deputy chief of staff, Evan Dreyer, who emailed back that city officials will post a legally required notice Tuesday that it will be cleared out. Dreyer also said he’d ask police to take a closer look at the site. Ryan replied: “Is there a reason we cannot post the notices today?”
Ryan told The Denver Post he reached out to city officials after several tenants in the building complained about the camp.
“A commercial property owner was seeking assistance through standard channels with getting a homeless encampment relocated,” Ryan said of the request.
Hinds also heard from Mike McReynolds with the Governor’s Office of Information Technology, which is on 18th Ave. between Pearl and Washington streets and not at the state Capitol. McReynolds asked to speak with the councilman in his message, as well as accusing the council and mayor of “failing across the board” and saying they “should be ashamed at what is transpiring in our beautiful city.”
McReynolds told The Denver Post he called Hinds solely as a constituent and not on state business. Hinds told The Post that McReynolds had no specific request from Gov. Jared Polis but “did make sure I knew he was in the Governor’s office.”
Polis spokesman Conor Cahill said neither Ryan’s email or McReynolds’ call came at the governor’s direction.
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