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People clean up their encampments along Lincoln Park, which is being closed on Wednesday, Jan 15, 2020, because of public health concerns. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Denver health officials see Lincoln Park across from the Colorado Capitol as a rat-infested, disease-harboring public danger they need to clean up. 

The few dozen people experiencing homelessness, who have been living there in tents, some for weeks, see it as home. 

On Wednesday morning the city used its public health authority to shut down the highly trafficked park and clear out a growing encampment lining East 14th Avenue and Broadway. The Denver Department of Public Health & Environment says the extent of the public health hazard is unclear, but that it’s seen enough concerning conditions and heard enough complaints that the agency felt it needed to take action. 

The park is actually owned by the state, but since it’s in Denver, city officials are handling the closure and cleanup. 

Starting about 8 a.m. on Wednesday, police officers and health workers went tent by tent — to about a dozen in all — informing people they needed to leave and posting notices that the park is being closed. They handed out plastic bags for people to pack up their belongings.

“When we have encumbrances and people staying in this park we cannot see what’s going on  on the surface here,” said Ann Cecchine-Williams, deputy executive director of the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment. “We have to have full access so we can do a deep evaluation of the grounds here and identify all the concerns.”

Later in the day, the city posted photos on Twitter showing syringes, propane tanks and blood that they found during their initial cleanup work. Cecchine-Williams said the city has been trying to ensure people living in the park have access to services.

But those camped along the park’s periphery said they were shocked by the city’s action on Wednesday. 

“I think this is an excuse to get us homeless people out of here,” said Misty Splude, who said she was pregnant and had been living in the park for about three weeks. “Where are we going to go now?”

Misty Splude, center in the gray jacket, speaks with a Denver city official as she was notified that she had to move her tent away from Lincoln Park, which is being closed on Wednesday, Jan 15, 2020, because of public health concerns. “Where are we going to go now?” she said. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Splude said she picked the park to camp at with her partner because “it’s the safest place to be.”

“You won’t get beat up. You won’t get robbed. I feel sometimes it’s safe to be near the cops,” she said.

Reiko Nunez said he thought the park’s closure was an excuse to evict the people experiencing homeless who have been living there. “They have to find us some way to get us up off the property,” he said. 

Denver public health officials say the park will likely be closed for weeks. Clean-up was expected to begin Wednesday afternoon with power washing. People can still walk along the sidewalks that go through Lincoln Park and around it during the process.

“It’s not healthy,” Cecchine-Williams said. “It’s not safe and it’s not humane. As the public health department for the city of Denver, we have a responsibility to address these issues.”

People clean up their encampments along Lincoln Park, which is being closed on Wednesday, Jan 15, 2020, because of public health concerns. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

She denied that the park’s closure was aimed at removing the homeless amid the city’s on-again-off-again — and now on again — enforcement of a camping ban. “That’s not what’s happening here,” she said.

Cecchine-Williams said the city has done two other similar closures and cleanups in the past two years, including one in October 2018 around Catholic Charities downtown and another in April 2019 near the Denver Rescue Mission. 

“We’ll reopen the park when we feel that the environment is safe and stable,” she said.

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....