Denver City Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca on Tuesday called on Mayor Michael Hancock to “immediately” suspend camping ban enforcement and cleanups of homeless encampments during the coronavirus crisis.
CdeBaca, who has pledged to repeal the camping ban, cites the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which advises against clearing encampments “unless individual housing units are available.” Doing so, the agency warns, “can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers,” increasing the odds the disease will spread.
Hancock’s office said encampment areas are not being swept.
“In practice, we have continued to clean encampment areas but we are not clearing them during this public health situation,” mayor’s office spokesman Mike Strott told Colorado Politics in an email.
“We continue to do everything possible to connect people to indoor shelter, housing and healthcare services — including the addition of a 50-bed supplemental shelter for people exhibiting flu-like symptoms and additional respite care rooms in area motels for people referred by healthcare providers,” Strott said.
The councilwoman’s call to action was backed by fellow council members Paul Kashmann, Robin Kniech and Jamie Torres. Democratic state lawmakers, including Sen. Julie Gonzales of Denver and Reps. Adrienne Benavidez of Commerce City, James Coleman of Denver, Leslie Herod of Denver and Jovan Melton of Aurora, also signed on. Organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless and Denver Homeless Out Loud supported the move as well.
The community leaders say Denver’s new “stay-at-home” order, which goes into effect at 5 p.m. Tuesday, leaves people experiencing homelessness with "an impossible choice: To stay in a shelter with hundreds of others (increasing the risk of disease spread in closed-air, close contact with others). Or to stay on the streets in a tent, where there is more space and open air than in a shelter, but face orders from police and other city agencies to pack up and move or be ticketed.”
The city's controversial camping ban was ruled unconstitutional by Denver County Court Judge Johnny Barajas in December, and the City Attorney’s Office appealed the decision soon after. Denver’s police officers briefly paused enforcement in response to the ruling, but resumed less than a month later.
Leaders of Denver Homeless Out Loud acknowledged that, although law enforcement is not actively sweeping encampments, worry runs rampant among the unsheltered because there is “continual contact” from police officers telling them they need to move.
“There’s a lot of fear in the homeless community waiting for the day that (cops) are going to show up,” DHLO spokesman Benjamin Dunning said.
In addition to needing greater access to warm, running water to stay healthy, Dunning said what people experiencing homelessness need now more than ever is housing.
However, Denver could be short as many as 3,900 rooms to house the homeless, according to Britta Fisher, the city's chief housing officer.
Mayor’s office spokeswoman Theresa Marchetta told Colorado Politics late Tuesday morning that the city would be providing new information later in the day “on additional supports” for those experiencing homelessness.
But by Tuesday evening, Strott said identifying those supports was "something we're still working on."
Community leaders demand that the mayor “prioritize expanding housing and motel accommodations, health and hygiene access, and sanitized shelters with handwashing stations, social distancing, and more quarantine options.
“Without these changes,” their petition read, “shelters remain unsafe for unhoused residents, potentially placing them at greater risk of infection.”