As the city cleared a large homeless encampment along Arkins Court in Five Points Monday, protesters clashed with police and criticized the city’s decision to continue such sweeps.
Danica Lee, director of public health inspections for the city’s public health department, said somewhere between 90 and 100 people lived in the encampment, which had more than 100 tents or structures. The city gave notice last week that it would be clearing the camp “to address deteriorating conditions and encumbrances in the public right of way.” Lee said it could take a week or longer to clean up.
Lee said most people cleared the area in anticipation of the cleanups. There were empty tents, but some people were still in theirs when city staff started sweeping the area Monday morning.
Under a street light along 29th Avenue, a man who identified himself as JJ packed his belongings early on the chilly morning.
He’s been at the camp for over a year. He said he didn’t mind the cleanup, since he was planning on moving anyway. He had another spot in Denver about an hour’s walk away.
“But for some people, this is the only place they have to go,” JJ said, as he packed a makeshift cart with a bike, shoes, clothing and a barrel for fires to keep him warm. He said he started packing on Sunday night and estimated close to 200 people lived at the camp.
Down the road on Arkins Court, Leon August was also packing up. He didn’t think it was right to move people who had been living there for months.
Knowing the sweep was coming meant he didn’t get much sleep. He took just two bags.
“All of a sudden they have to move,” August said. “It’s wrong, but what more can we say?”
Protesters arrived around 5:30 a.m. as city workers began erecting fencing along Arkins and between 29th and Denargo streets. Police ordered people to move back, sometimes using their batons to shove protesters, as city workers moved northeast along Arkins installing fencing.
Protesters were able to knock down a section of the fence near 29th and Delgany Street, leading to shouting and shoving. The fence was put back up, but officers used mace and pepper balls to disperse the crowd behind the fence. Some protesters threw things like coffee over the fence toward officers.
Lee said people were allowed to go behind the fence to get their belongings. Volunteers helped people pack, and some even offered their cars to move belongings.
Lee said the city had received complaints from nearby apartment residents who said they didn’t feel safe walking in the area. Public health spokesperson Tammy Vigil said the city gets “hundreds of complaints” about encampments around Denver.
In early December, Denver is set to open sanctioned camping in Capitol Hill.
Lee said as part of its outreach at the encampment, the city provided COVID-19 testing. Fifteen encampment residents agreed to be tested; Lee said all tested negative.
The city has faced criticism for its decision to continue encampment sweeps during the pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has cautioned that such sweeps can increase the risk of spreading the disease.
“The CDC guidance that is issued (is) absent (of) other considerations,” Lee said. “It’s guidance that is important, but it does have to be taken into consideration in the broader context of what you’re dealing with it, and it’s not the only factor.”
Lee said the recent presence of protesters at cleanups has prompted the city to add fencing to secure the area being swept. Denver police spokesperson Jay Casillas said over email four people were arrested during Monday’s sweep. He said they were arrested for failure to obey lawful order.
On Saturday, Denver Homeless Out Loud organized a press conference to give encampment residents a chance to voice their frustrations with the city.
Denver Homeless Out Loud is among the plaintiffs who filed a lawsuit against city officials, including Mayor Michael Hancock, to stop the sweeps.
Wolf Begaye, who said he’s lived at the Five Points encampment for over a year, said the camp began with a few tents. He said many new arrivals were told by police to move there after sweeps in other parts of the city. He estimated about 300 people lived along the street.
“This is where they told us to go. Out of sight, out of mind. Well, apparently we aren’t out of mind anymore,” he said. “We don’t have means to go get a motel or an apartment. If we did, we’d be have been there. Trust and believe.”
About three weeks ago, Thomas Bevington said, authorities forced him and his wife to move along from a campsite near Stout Street and encouraged them to move to Arkins, he said. They offered him a motel room, but it was only for a few nights.
“That’s a temporary thing,” he said on Saturday. “I don’t know where we’re going to go tomorrow, but we’re not waiting for Monday. We’re leaving tomorrow, but I don’t know where we’re going to go.”
His wife, Bethany White, said some of the officers she dealt with in the last sweep downtown were “extremely rude” as they pushed her and Bevington along.
Begaye said he was grateful for the gathering on Saturday.
“A lot of people have come here today to tell the police, no,” Begaye said. “You can’t push us too far. You push us too far, we fall down, we’ve got nothing. Just because you’re homeless doesn’t mean you don’t have the right to basic necessities.”