Denver Police Carry Out "Soft" Sweep of Homeless Encampment | Westword


Denver Police Carry Out "Soft" Sweep of Homeless Encampment After Neighborhood Complaints

Cops carried out a "soft-enforcement operation" this week to eradicate a homeless encampment outside the popular Gathering Place day shelter.
A Denver police officer leaves the Gathering Place at 1535 High Street after completing a "soft-enforcement" sweep at the property.
A Denver police officer leaves the Gathering Place at 1535 High Street after completing a "soft-enforcement" sweep at the property. Bennito L. Kelty
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In the shade of a tree-lined stretch of sidewalk near East Colfax Avenue and High Street, about a dozen tents used to sit on a public lawn in front of 1535 High Street, the headquarters of the popular Gathering Place day shelter.

The Denver Police Department arrived on Wednesday night, August 30, to "ask" the homeless people living in those tents to pack up their stuff and move off the property, the DPD says. Some had been living there for months.

By Thursday afternoon, the encampment and its residents were gone — the result of what police officials are calling a "soft-enforcement operation," which the city and Mayor Mike Johnston first denied and are now downplaying.

"There is not a cleanup scheduled for that site," said mayoral spokesperson Jordan Fuja in a statement to Westword on August 28, after being asked whether a sweep was scheduled to occur at the High Street camp.
On August 31, after all the homeless residents were gone, Fuja said: "There was no enforced cleanup at that site. DPD continues to respond to community concerns about ordinance violations. At this location, the mayor's office was aware that individuals would be advised that they were violating city ordinances and asked to move. They were not forced to move."

But as a result of desperate pleas by a group of neighbors to the police department, the Gathering Place and Mayor Mike Johnston directly during one of his town halls, the encampment was swept through a soft-enforcement operation that morning.

DPD Sergeant James Lucero confirms that the operation was in response to complaints from people living in nearby homes. Since the start of the year, residents have reported at least 263 incidents near the Gathering Place encampment — including violent assaults, domestic-violence incidents, thefts, burglaries, arson, trespassing, criminal mischief, drug use and dealing, overdoses, fights, suicide attempts, unattended dogs, lewd gestures, suspected prostitution and gunshots.

"Because I had been inundated and because we here at District 6 had been inundated with numerous complaints — basically people begging for us to do something about the decent-sized encampment on the 1500 block of High Street — we felt compelled to do something about it," Lucero says.

While police and city officials insist that the soft-enforcement operation wasn't a "sweep" as the term is typically used, residents in the area and the homeless individuals involved say they feel like it was a sweep, and that the DPD should have at least treated it as such. 
click to enlarge A homeless resident looks back at the spot where she had been staying in an encampment.
Homeless residents at the High Street encampment say Denver police told them to leave or their belongings would be thrown away.
Bennito L. Kelty
"They only gave us a day notice," says an encampment resident named Lynn, who asked Westword not to publish her last name. "Police said there were complaints from [the Gathering Place] as well as neighbors, but there was really like no suggestions offered. Just the one-day notice, that was it."

According to Lynn and others, police came by on August 30 and early the next morning to give verbal notices to camp residents — saying they needed to leave or their belongings would be thrown out. Lynn was awake and standing outside her tent when police arrived at around 8:30 a.m. on Thursday to finish clearing people out.

"They said when they came back, if people were still here, then stuff would be thrown away [and] names would be ran," Lynn recalls. "They searched people's stuff. They took fingerprints for, I guess, people who were in tents at the time of their coming."

Lucero confirmed for Westword that the soft-enforcement operation had been carried out Wednesday night and Thursday morning.

A sweep typically refers to "a hard-enforcement operation," Lucero says, with the main difference being that hard-enforcement requires people at the encampment to leave or be arrested, ticketed or served a court summons.

"A sweep — the way it's commonly referred to by individuals in the media or the average person out there — we would correlate that with a hard-enforcement operation, where we're making people move at the risk of either receiving a summons or possibly going to jail," Lucero explains. "This soft-enforcement approach is just making advisements, so we're not even doing reports regarding this. We're just making advisements that these individuals at these encampments are in violation of a current city ordinance."

The Denver ordinance that those campers had been violating is known as the camping ban, which prohibits "unauthorized camping on public or private property," Lucero says. "We requested that they comply with our request to pack up because technically, even though we're not enforcing it to the point of people going to jail or getting summonses or citations, they're still in violation of an actual ordinance that exists on the books."

Lucero adds, "Every single one of them chose to leave of their own volition."

It's hard not to, Lynn says, when a team of DPD officers shows up one night and starts looking through people's tents.

According to Lucero, officers were only searching specific setups reported for drug use and dealing. 

Sanitation workers came in on Thursday to pick up the trash left behind. "It looks a lot nicer and presentable, and so there are no concerns about having a future rat infestation or needles on the ground or anything like that," Lucero says. 

People living nearby in houses had spent months trying to get the city and the Gathering Place to take responsibility for the crime in the area, as well as street conditions. 
click to enlarge Pakizé Arslani, Kyle Tilev, James Noone and Chris O'Reilly stand on the patio of one of their High Street homes.
From left to right, Pakizé Arslani, Kyle Tilev, James Noone and Chris O'Reilly on the patio of one of their homes near the encampment by the Gathering Place.
Bennito L. Kelty

Over the past year, hypodermic — and often bloody — needles have been found on sidewalks and alleys outside homes on the block. In mid-July, a young girl had to be taken to the hospital because she stepped on a needle at the Gathering Place, according to the group's records.

"It is a positive thing, but there's a silver lining there," says resident Kyle Tilev of the soft-enforcement operation. "We really care about the people that need the services of the Gathering Place, and it's unfortunate that something like this had to happen."

The nonprofit Gathering Place operates a day shelter at 1535 High Street for women, transgender and non-binary homeless individuals. It serves as a place where they can receive a number of supportive services thanks to the $2 million it brings in annually in grants and contributions, the group says.

"Regrettably, this action has resulted in the displacement of numerous unhoused people," says Gathering Place spokesperson Kaitlin Cook in a statement to Westword about the soft-enforcement operation.

"We acknowledge that uprooting their homes and the communities they’ve fostered can engender profound trauma and setbacks," Cook adds. "Undoubtedly, today has been tough for many, with a significant displacement of individuals and our inability to provide immediate housing solutions."

In the past, homeless residents have been able to camp or live in their cars outside of the Gathering Place's High Street headquarters with permission from the group. According to its official rules, however, people should not invite cis-gender men to stay on the property.      

Many of the incidents reported to the police in recent months have involved cis-gender men, according to the neighbors who've been making the calls.

The Gathering Place is located a few blocks from the Denver Center for 21st Century Learning, a school for students at risk of falling behind or dropping out. Neighbors have reported seeing children buying drugs at the encampment.

Tilev and his fiancée, Pakizé Arslani, joined a group of residents who live on or near the 1500 block of High Street and have spoken out about the problems.

The Gathering Place hired a new CEO, Megan Davenport, at the beginning of the year, but she was unavailable to comment for this story. According to the group, she had been in direct contact with neighborhood residents for months leading up to the soft-enforcement operation.

At least one person was arrested on Thursday morning during the operation because they had an outstanding warrant, Lucero says.

The City of Denver has carried out two "hard-enforcement" sweeps since Mayor Johnston took office in July: one at 22nd and Stout streets at the beginning of August and the second last week at 17th Avenue and Logan Street after multiple gun incidents were reported there.

Johnston has vowed to shelter 1,000 people "living and dying on the streets of Denver" before the end of the year.

He has also promised to do so by only conducting sweeps when there's a public health or safety risk, and always in a way that's "respectful, dignified," he said at a town hall earlier this year.

Johnston has also committed to "decommissioning" encampments instead of sweeping them, with the difference being that he would only move people once he had a place to put them. However, his administration does not expect to have any available shelter space until his micro-communities open in November or December.

Lynn had been bouncing around from encampment to encampment before eventually landing in front of the Gathering Place, where things were admittedly becoming a problem, she says.

"It was getting out of control," she concedes. "You can't be doing drugs all out have to have some discretion."

Robin Rothman, one of the concerned neighbors who spoke to Westword, calls Thursday a "solemn day" for residents on the block. "We're not out here cheering," she says. "We want everybody who's homeless to find a place to stay and the help they need."

Even Lucero says he understands that homeless residents "are stuck on the streets" and going through "rough times" as the result of operations like this. "I'll acknowledge that," he adds.

"We're also trying to balance their right to survival with the right of community members to feel safe in their neighborhoods and be free of drug usage and trash piling up in the area, any sort of violent tendencies that might occur," Lucero concludes. "There's no easy answer."

Mayor Michael Johnston is continuing to hold town hall meetings on homelessness. Here are the remaining dates:

September 5 at 6 p.m., Denver Dumb Friends League, 2080 South Quebec Street
September 7 at 6 p.m., Joe Shoemaker School, 3333 South Havana Street
September 13 at 4 p.m., Ratio Beerworks Overland, 2030 South Cherokee Street
September 13 at 5:30 p.m. (Spanish focused), Valverde Elementary School, 2030 West Alameda Avenue
September 14 at 4 p.m., Globeville Recreation Center Birdseed Collective, 4496 Grant Street
September 26 at 4 p.m., College View Recreation Center, 2525 South Decatur Street
September 27 at 5:30 p.m., Montbello Recreation Center, 15555 East 53rd Avenue
September 28 at 5 p.m., Evans School, 1115 Acoma Street
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