People experiencing homelessness are in court asking Denver to stop clearing unsanctioned encampments

“I woke up to trash trucks,” one of the plaintiffs testified Wednesday.

A protester attempts to stop city officials from conducting a forced cleanup of encampments at Lincoln Park, across Lincoln Street from the Capitol. July 29, 2020.

A protester attempts to stop city officials from conducting a forced cleanup of encampments at Lincoln Park, across Lincoln Street from the Capitol. July 29, 2020.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Donna Bryson. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

The end came suddenly.

“I woke up to trash trucks,” Michael Lamb said of his last day in a large tent camp that Denver health officials ordered shut down during the summer.

Lamb is one of the people experiencing homelessness who, along with the advocacy group Denver Homeless Out Loud, are in court asking Denver to stop clearing unsanctioned encampments such as the one at Lincoln Memorial Park. Lamb had been living at the park just west of the state Capitol for two or three months before it was cleared on July 29.

“They took our stuff,” Lamb said from the witness stand on Wednesday. “They didn’t give us any warning.”

U.S. District Court Judge William Martinez called a hearing Tuesday and Wednesday and was planning to schedule a third day of testimony to consider a request that he issue an injunction that would end encampment clearances (pending a later trial in the case). Lamb’s lawyer has been calling experts in health and homelessness as witnesses. Lamb’s expertise comes from experience.

After being forced to leave Lincoln park, Lamb set up camp at a site near 14th Avenue and Logan Street that the city cleared about a month later. Then Lamb moved from 14th and Logan to 14th and Pennsylvania Street, only to wake the next morning to a cleanup there.

Lamb said he saw a notice posted on a tree before the clearance at 14th and Logan but did not have time to gather all his possessions before he moved. He had not heard that a cleanup was scheduled for 14th and Pennsylvania when he moved there.

“They start going through, waking people up, telling them to be out by 8 a.m. You grab what (possessions) you can,” Lamb said, giving a description of one cleanup that applied to many. “We didn’t have no place to go.”

Lamb and the other plaintiffs accuse Denver of routinely discarding the property of people experiencing homelessness, which they argue violates the right to due process and other constitutional provisions. They also argue that Denver can maintain health and safety with measures such as regularly collecting trash from encampments and providing tent-dwellers with handwashing and toilet facilities and health services.

The city contends that when the pandemic arrived, it initially left encampments in place. But conditions worsened to the point that health officials had “to act to protect public health and environment for all,” Assistant City Attorney Wendy Shea said as the hearing opened.

A key point in the case is guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has cautioned that clearing encampments, particularly when the inhabitants aren’t being offered individual housing, can increase the risk of spreading COVID-19 during the pandemic by dispersing people and disrupting their connections with service providers. The city has argued that it has to balance addressing COVID-19 with other health concerns, including the risks of other diseases spreading in tent cities, infestations of rats, and the accumulation of trash, drug paraphernalia, human feces, urine and vomit.

Bill Burman, director of Denver Public Health and the city’s top medical officer, said during his testimony for the city on Wednesday that the CDC provides important advice, “but it is not regulation. Nor is it intended to be so.”

Burman, who has been on committees charged with drafting national health guidelines, said guidance on encampments is not the only area where health authorities in Denver have occasionally deviated from CDC guidance. He cited early advice from the CDC on how to respond to the risk of COVID-19 transmission among medical workers. He said following that advice to the letter would have led to quarantining health care workers to the point that it would have been difficult to provide care. He said that the CDC later revised those guidelines to take into account the practical issues encountered in Denver and elsewhere. Burman acknowledged under questioning from the plaintiffs’ lawyer that the CDC guidance on encampments has gone unchanged for months.

Martinez also was the judge in a case last year that ended in a settlement in which the city agreed to give notice of cleanups and store the belongings of people forced to move by such operations.

Charlotte Pitt, a manager with Denver’s public works department who oversees largescale cleanups, testified Wednesday that notices of cleanups are posted at encampments a week in advance, as spelled out in the settlement.

“We try to make contact with every camper that’s there when we do the posting,” she added.

Pitt said that under the settlement, city and contract workers only dispose of trash and items considered contaminated. She said one hypodermic needle seen in a tent would result in the entire tent being deemed contaminated and thrown into a trash truck. Removing the needle would expose a city worker to the risk of being pricked, she said.

“When we see a needle, we have to assume there’s more in the tent,” Pitt added.

Public works, known as the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure, is not the only authority in Denver that can order an encampment cleared. It was the city’s public health department that ordered the cleanup at Lincoln Memorial Park, posting notice the morning of the operation. The 2019 agreement did not constrain the city’s ability to act quickly in cases when public health and safety were threatened, as the health department has said it has done in ordering cleanups. The plaintiffs in the case question whether the city was turning to the health department to lead cleanups to avoid meeting its obligations under the settlement.

Danica Lee, director of public health inspections for the city’s public health department, testified Wednesday that concern over protests was one of the reasons notice was not given earlier of the Lincoln park cleanup. Lee and Pitt, the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure manager, had both testified about growing and increasingly aggressive protests of cleanups by demonstrators who do not live in encampments. The witnesses said demonstrators have ripped down tape used to indicate the areas closed for cleaning and have shouted insults at police officers and other city staff.

“There were 150 people chanting my name” at one cleanup protest, Lee said, adding that a city security official contacted her later to advise her on what steps she could take to ensure her and her family’s safety.

Lee testified that when she is deciding whether to clear an encampment, her first consideration is the health and safety of people living in the encampment. She added that her department has left most encampments alone.

Correction:

Due to a reporter’s error, the scope of the 2019 agreement was mischaracterized. The agreement did not constrain the city’s ability to act quickly in cases when public health and safety were threatened, as the health department has said it has done in ordering cleanups.

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