Denver Public Health declared Liberty Park — across the street from the state Capitol — a public health hazard and closed it, forcing the eviction of about 100 people who had been camping in the park for the past two weeks.
The encampment sprung up after Denver County Judge Johnny Barajas ruled on Dec. 27 that the city's camping ban was unconstitutional.
The park is formally known as Lincoln Park but has taken on other names, including Liberty -- for the Liberty Bell replica it holds -- and Veteran's Park.
About 100 people were told to vacate the premises, although some were taken away by Denver Police in handcuffs. About 40 tents and other structures will be dismantled and removed, according to the city's Department of Public Health & Environment.
One woman was taken away by ambulance: A Denver Police officer said the woman had been keeping warm by covering herself with a blanket and a lit candle, which resulted in burns to her face.
Ann Cecchine-Williams, the public health deputy executive director, said the city is temporarily restricting access to Lincoln Park because of "significant environmental and public health concerns."
That's rats and other rodents, in plain language.
Trees and landscaping in the park show extensive damage from what the public health department and Denver Police say is a rat infestation. One tree has been gnawed almost all the way through at its base; another is surrounded by rat holes.
The park's interior will be closed while the city evaluates the park's condition and what it will take to clean it up, which could take weeks, Williams said. Sidewalks along the park's exterior, which is bordered by Colfax and 14th Avenue on its north and south and by Lincoln and Broadway west and east, will remain open.
"We will be looking at litter and the amount of food waste, which is significant, and that's drawing pests," Williams said.
There are also the problems of animal and human waste, which contributes to the spread of disease and impacts water quality, as well as drug paraphernalia like discarded needles. That's a significant health concern for those who are inhabiting the park, walking through it or cleaning the park, Williams said.
"We have to remove the people and the encumbrances so we can get a good look at what's going on," she said. "We have to be able to see everything. We'll clean and mitigate the hazards that we find so we can restore the park to a safe and stable condition."
Because of the public health and environmental hazards, the city was able to immediately take action instead of posting a seven-day notice.
Outreach workers are consistently working with Denver's homeless, Williams said. Several have been on hand in the park since Monday and were present during Wednesday's action.
"We will continue to connect people with resources with the goal of getting them into permanent housing," Williams said.
"Sinner" is one of the 100 people who has been in the park for the past two weeks. He's originally from California. "This is my family, this is where I belong," he said.
Sinner said police and the public have been harassing them, and that people will drive by while honking and yelling at them. He was aware of the court decision, but said the city found a loophole — calling it a rodent problem — and now he and his companions out. He said he's seen squirrels but wouldn't say if he'd seen rats.
He doesn't know where he will go after this. "If we're such a black eye on society, this is how we live," he said. "Some live this way because they chose to, others live this way because life got in the way. You can cut the tension with how we're viewed with a knife."
Sinner, who is in his 40s, suggested the city should buy a run-down motel, fix it up and let the homeless move in. It would cost the city only what it costs to renovate the motel. "It would get these people off the block."
The eviction brings up emotions. Sinner said he's had drug problems in the past but is clean now. "To get persecuted," he said, "just because this is what's going on in this chapter of our lives, is BS."
"There is no place for us to go."
The sweep of the park started shortly before the General Assembly began its morning business and continued in full view of the House.
"It's a situation that needed resolution and it's a challenge that Denver will always have," said Rep. Hugh McKean, R-Loveland. "Denver isn't just a city and county, it's also the state Capitol. It's very important when you think about what encampments mean to the state and what people think when they come to do business with the state. They need to figure this out."
Rep. Alex Valdez, D-Denver, represents the portion of Denver that includes Liberty Park. He drove past the encampment on his way to the Capitol. Both Valdez and Rep. Kyle Mullica, D-Thornton, called the situation disturbing. "We want these individuals to have the resources they need to sleep and live in a sanitary environment and be safe," Mullica said. "It's sad that we have to many individuals in this situation."
It's "ironic in the shadow of the Capitol" to have people in this situation, added Rep. Kerry Tipper, D-Lakewood. "We know this is an emerging problem that continues to get worse," she said, and the question remains whether there are enough resources in place to help the homeless. "Where are these individuals going?"
Valdez added that lawmakers had been talking on Wednesday about personal space, and that "where you live and sleep is an important part of your feeling of security. This is such a tragic thing to watch." Valdez suggested that the park should add dumpsters and portable toilets. "Providing sanitation is part of basic human dignity" and could prevent the health concerns taking place in Liberty Park, he said.