The city plans to clear a Five Points encampment that outreach workers estimate is home to 80 people.
Nancy Kuhn, spokeswoman for the Denver’s Department of Transportation and Infrastructure, said the operation planned for Monday along Arkins Court from about Denargo to 29th streets “is to address deteriorating conditions and encumbrances in the public right of way.” The area is near the Crossroads shelter.
The city is facing a federal lawsuit over such cleanups. People experiencing homelessness and the advocacy group Denver Homeless Out Loud point out 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 plaintiffs have asked the court to order that sweeps be stopped at least until public health authorities have determined that the pandemic is over.
City officials argue that they must balance CDC guidance with the need to address other hazards posed by large encampments to people experiencing homelessness and people with homes and businesses nearby. In an interview this week, Mayor Michael Hancock told Colorado Public Radio that unsanctioned camping cannot be allowed because it is unsanitary, unhealthy and unsafe.
Hancock added that is why “we work to not have them established in the city and we try to connect people to critical services and why we are looking at this model of more sanctioned camping where we can manage those conditions and keep people healthy and safe.”
Derek Woodbury, spokesperson for Denver’s housing department, said outreach teams have been visiting the area around Crossroads ahead of Monday’s cleanup “to connect people to services, shelter and housing.”
Service providers have said the cleanups make it difficult to keep in contact with people they are trying to connect to services.
Cathy Alderman, spokesperson for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, said COVID testing was conducted this week at the encampment near Crossroads and outreach workers were in the area Tuesday notifying people that all the tests were negative.
“There is no testing planned moving forward,” Alderman said. “Moving people out of the camp is going to increase their likelihood to exposure” to the coronavirus.
Woodbury said that a week before the cleanup was scheduled, the encampment held about 100 tents or other shelters and about 80 people were living there. He could not say how many of the encampment’s residents outreach workers have been able to connect to shelter or other services.
Britta Fisher, who heads Denver’s housing department, has expressed concern about shelter capacity as winter approaches. Shelters have reduced beds to allow for the social distancing needed to slow the spread of the coronavirus, even as the pandemic has created an economic crisis that appears to be increasing homelessness.
The city is converting a warehouse in Northeast Park Hill into a new shelter that would serve about 400 people. Woodbury said that the new shelter is expected to open for some guests by the end of this year and be at full capacity in February.
Currently, the city’s shelter system has about 230 beds or hotel rooms available, “and we are prepared to stand up additional overflow shelter as might be needed in order to respond to demand,” Woodbury said in an email Tuesday.