A sit-in to try to stop the displacement of people living in tents near the Saint Joseph Hospital campus ended with police arresting protesters early Tuesday.
Denver’s Department of Transportation and Infrastructure had posted notices that it planned to “remove all items encumbering or obstructing public areas” at 19th Avenue and Emerson Street in Five Points on Tuesday. Recently, such cleanups have started with city workers erecting temporary fencing around encampments. As the fencing went up around 5 a.m. Tuesday, Terese Howard, an organizer with the advocacy group Denver Homeless Out Loud, said people sat peacefully with linked arms, “trying to defend the camp and stop the fence from being put up.”
Howard said seven protesters were arrested. Denver Police spokeswoman Christine Downs said six were arrested. The discrepancy could not be immediately resolved. Downs said they were arrested “after disobeying a lawful order.”
The protesters were not residents of the encampment, said Howard, who estimated that 40 to 50 people had been living in tents on a lawn between the street and sidewalk at 19th and Emerson for about a month.
Hours after the arrests, Howard said people were “getting kicked out and packing up and figuring out the next block.” Cleanups typically result in people leaving the targeted encampments and setting up tents nearby.
Denver Homeless Out Loud is among the plaintiffs in a federal suit filed in October to try stop such actions. The suit notes that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has cautioned that clearing encampments can increase the risk of spreading disease during the pandemic by causing “people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers.”
The suit calls for cleanups that displace people experiencing homelessness to stop at least until public health authorities have determined that the COVID-19 outbreak is over. In addition, the plaintiffs asked the court to order the city to provide people living on the streets with restrooms, hand-washing stations and trash collection and other sanitation services. The suit also calls for unspecified monetary damages.
City health officials and Mayor Michael Hancock have said they are balancing guidance from the CDC on encampments with the need to address hazards such as pests and trash associated with unsanctioned camping.
Hancock in June announced that Denver should have city-sanctioned, temporary camping during the pandemic. Sanctioned camps, also known as safe outdoor spaces, would be places where people experiencing homelessness could find shelter without worrying about being displaced by a cleanup, bathrooms, regular trash pickup and connections to housing, health care and other services.
Community meetings are scheduled Thursday and Saturday on a proposal to create Denver’s first sanctioned camps at First Baptist Church, at 1373 Grant St. in Capitol Hill, and Denver Community Church’s Uptown location at 1595 Pearl St. Each site is large enough for 30 tents and a maximum of 40 people.
Two previous proposals for sites in other parts of town were withdrawn after neighbors opposed the plans.