Concerns over trash launched cleanup of homeless encampment near Denver Art Museum

On Monday, the city targeted a few dozen tents near the DAM.
7 min. read
Department of Transportation and Infrastructure at work near the Denver Art Museum on Aug. 17, 2020. (Donna Bryson/Denverite)

Workers from the department in charge of keeping Denver clean taped off a section of Acoma Street near the Denver Art Museum early Monday, woke people living in tents and started clearing trash and offering to take belongings to a storage facility.

A similar operation took place Tuesday nearby at 13th Avenue and Washington Street in Capitol Hill. Next could be encampments to the north in Curtis Park and Five Points, around 23rd and Curtis and around an elementary school at 24th and Arapahoe streets.

"It does look like an area that does need some attention," Department of Transportation and Infrastructure spokeswoman Nancy Kuhn said of encampments that people in Curtis Park have said constitute a threat to health and safety because of trash, noise and crime.

Denver police said Monday that the department had resumed enforcement of the city's camping ban, citing violent crime and drug activity in encampments. Police spokesman Doug Schepman said in an email that until this month, enforcement had been suspended for months because of advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has cautioned that breaking up encampments can increase the risk of spreading disease during the coronavirus outbreak by causing "people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers."

Kuhn declined to specify when the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure would clean around 23rd and Curtis and 24th and Arapahoe. Department crews conducted several large cleanups in Curtis Park and Five Points in the spring.

Kuhn said crews check on such sites daily and collect trash. When the trash becomes too much to be contained with daily visits, or if tents and other belongings are blocking passersby, a large-scale cleanup such as Monday's near the art museum is scheduled.

A police officer keeps watch during a Department of Transportation and Infrastructure cleanup of a homeless encampment near the Denver Art Museum on Aug. 17, 2020. (Donna Bryson/Denverite)

Under a court settlement that a federal judge finalized last fall, Kuhn's department must post seven days' notice of large cleanups. The Department of Public Health and Environment can move more quickly when it sees an urgent matter of public health. Recently, the department posted notices the same morning it closed areas such as Lincoln Memorial Park, a state-owned plot between the Capitol and Civic Center Park, to lead cleanups with help from the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure.

Kuhn said Monday that her department keeps in close touch with public health colleagues.

"It's continued coordination and conversation," Kuhn said.

In an email Monday, public health spokeswoman Tammy Vigil said her department was regularly monitoring the conditions in the areas around 23rd and Curtis and 24th and Arapahoe, "as well as a number of others.

"We evaluate for public and environmental health impacts including: litter or food that attracts insects, rodents, and other wildlife, as well as causes odors; human and pet waste, which contribute to the spread of disease and impacts water quality; and needles and other drug paraphernalia that are improperly discarded, creating risks to people living in and visiting the area," Vigil added. "If conditions of an encamped area warrant, we will issue a temporary area restriction that allows us to immediately close off the area to begin clearing it, assessing the hazards, cleaning it and restoring it to a safe and stable state."

Kuhn said the cleanup at the encampment near the museum, which had around two dozen tents Monday morning, would take about half a day.

Andrew Zurcher said he had been camping near the art museum since being moved from Lincoln Memorial Park, which was closed by public health officials July 29 and remains fenced off. Zurcher said he did not plan to return to Acoma after Monday's cleanup.

"I don't think the neighbors like" the Acoma encampment, he said, adding that he was not sure where he would spend Monday night.

"Right now I think I'm going to go down toward the river and try to collect my thoughts," Zurcher said as he worked to attach a small wagon to a bicycle, both loaded with belongings.

Zurcher lost his home in Denver when his rent was raised four years ago. He lost his job as a glazier soon after and has been struggling since "to get my act together."

He last stayed in a shelter in the winter and found too many people were fighting or using drugs. He had not heard that since the pandemic, the city's shelters had switched to being open around-the-clock instead of just overnight. Zurcher said he would reconsider staying at a shelter now that he would not have to leave every morning and search again for a bed every night. City housing officials have said the new 24-hour model has offered people more stability as they search for housing.

In the week since Zurcher learned a cleanup was scheduled near the art museum, an outreach worker had spoken to him about agencies to which he could turn for help. Zurcher said he was not sure how the outreach worker would find him again now that he was leaving the Acoma camp, and that he did not remember for which organization she worked.

"There's been so much going on," he said.

Public health experts have cautioned against disrupting homeless encampments during the pandemic, saying that could make it harder to connect people with services and to contain the spread of the coronavirus. City officials have said they must weigh multiple concerns when deciding to sweep an area, including maintaining safety for the general public and controlling other diseases such as hepatitis A that have broken out because of lack of sanitation in encampments.

Jared Engelkemire, who lives in an apartment near the art museum, said it troubled him to see encampments growing in the neighborhood and he worried about the impact they might have on nearby businesses.

But, "it just feels like the city moves them from one place to the next without really working on the underlying issue," Engelkemire said.

City Councilman Chris Hinds expressed similar frustration during a council committee hearing Tuesday. Hinds represents District 10, where the encampments near the art museum and on 13th Avenue and several other tent cities have been cleared in recent weeks.

"Part of the problem that we have right now is that people are just being moved around," Hinds said.

Denver's housing department has been working with partners to provide outreach in the past week around the art museum and at the Capitol Hill area scheduled for cleanup on Tuesday. Such outreach typically precedes a cleanup, whether the operation is led by the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure or the Department of Public Health and Environment.

Housing department spokesman Derek Woodbury said outreach workers in the past week had in the area around 13th and Washington been able to reunite three people with relatives and referred at least one to a program in which people experiencing homelessness who are affected by the pandemic are given hotel rooms. Woodbury said a "high incidence of addiction and behavioral health issues ... have been troublesome for outreach to resolve" among people camping along Acoma.

The city has seen an increase in people living on the streets amid an economic slowdown caused by the pandemic, and officials fear the problem could worsen. Britta Fisher, who heads the city housing department, proposed Tuesday that a new shelter be created in a Park Hill warehouse. But she said it would be a haven for only some of those on the streets.

"We know that the solution to homelessness is housing," Fisher told a City Council committee on Tuesday. "We need more resources for that."

The city and its service provider partners also are searching for a site to start city-sanctioned camp sites. where people experiencing homelessness would have access to bathrooms, showers, security and help finding housing and employement.

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