A week after Gov. Jared Polis invited a cleanup of an encampment across from the Colorado Capitol and secured the ability for his state troopers to enforce Denver’s city ordinances, officials were clearing out the area on Wednesday morning.
Sgt. Blake White, a spokesman for the State Patrol, said troopers and health officials have for days been notifying residents of the tent camp in Lincoln Park that they needed to move or they would be cleared out of the area. He said residents were provided with resources to help them resettle elsewhere.
“We’re taking a very slow, methodical approach in cleaning it and allowing them to move to safer locations,” White said. “We’re trying to provide them every ability to move somewhere safe.”
Authorities began by putting up a chain-link fence around the park and asking folks sleeping in the park to move outside of the barrier. Troopers wearing helmets, N95 masks and yellow booties walked through the park, carrying guns that shoot non-lethal bullets.
Screaming matches broke out between troopers and homeless activists. There was at least one man taken into custody.
An empty charter bus was parked outside the park to transport people to shelters, but people living in the park instead were quickly gathering their belongings and leaving on foot.
A trash truck moved through the park, picking up what was left behind, and workers were using snow shovels to pile up garbage.
White said troopers were offering transportation to the National Western Complex and Denver Coliseum, where shelters were set up to help house people during the coronavirus crisis. The city set up two temporary shelters during the pandemic — a 600-bed shetler for men inside the National Western, and a 300-bed shelter for women at the Coliseum.
Lincoln Park, between East Colfax Avenue and East 14th Avenue just west of the Colorado Capitol, is state property, but Denver police and health officials have in the past taken lead on keeping watch over the area. Wednesday’s cleanup involved both troopers and staff from the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment.
Polis said during a news conference last week that he would welcome and encourage law enforcement to “come remove” anyone who is squatting on state property.
“I’ve asked the mayor and the city council, and I really want the city council to act and the mayor,” Polis said. “We’ve been asking them for weeks.”
The mayor’s office had retorted, when asked for comment by The Colorado Sun, that cleaning the encampment was “not a simple matter of removing people, especially in the midst of a pandemic” and suggested that the governor sit down for a longer conversation about homelessness.
Polis said he pushed Denver officials to allow the Colorado State Patrol, which handles security at the Capitol, to be allowed to enforce city ordinances. On Thursday, Denver Public Safety Director Murphy Robinson signed an order allowing troopers to enforce parts of Denver’s municipal code near the Capitol and the governor’s mansion.
Specifically, troopers can enforce city laws around trespass, disturbing the peace, assault, public fighting, public urination and defecation, theft, destruction of property, obstruction of streets or other public passageways, park curfews, and damaging trees on public property. Denver also has a camping ban, which has existed for eight years. City voters decided overwhelmingly — by 81% — to keep the ban during a May 2019 election.
Robinson, in a call with reporters Wednesday afternoon, said the cleanup did not happen because of his order delegating authority to state troopers to enforce city ordinances. He said Polis’ comments about welcoming the city to intervene in the camp also did not prompt the cleanup.
“It was time,” Robinson said, citing public health and crime concerns associated with the encampment. He also said there have been an increasing number of coronavirus cases among people living in Lincoln Park.
Robinson said the city is also planning to clean up the encampment in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood near Morey Middle School.
White said Lincoln Park will be closed for a while because the cleanup needed for the area is extensive. He said there are rats, as well as drug paraphernalia and human waste.
“There’s just a lot of things to clean up,” White said.
The grass in Lincoln Park is crispy and yellow, and a day before the sweep, the park was filled with more than 100 tents and tarps tied to the trees with ropes and string. City crews have been sweeping and raking up trash in the park almost daily, but the ground was littered with food wrappers, empty water bottles and other garbage. The trash cans overflowed.
The city placed a row of portable toilets across the street from the park, which were used by many — though not all — residents of the camp. A Colorado Sun reporter saw a woman going to the bathroom on the ground last week and a man shooting drugs into his arm.
One resident of the camp, Danelle Montano, 40, said she believed authorities would have to give everyone living there an eviction notice of 72 hours before showing up to kick them off the public property.
Montano said she felt unsafe living in the enclosed, crowded space of a shelter during the pandemic. She has severe lung problems and remembers how scary it was for her to get the H1N1 flu in 2009, she said.
Many folks living in the park said they have either never liked staying indoors or switched to sleeping outside because of coronavirus. Advocates said sweeping them out of the park pushes many people who are homeless toward the river, underpasses and the suburbs — only masking the crisis instead of dealing with it.
Denver Homeless Out Loud organizer Terese Howard said dozens of troopers showed up at 6:30 a.m. “with no warning whatsoever.” Some who lived in the camp were able to get out with their belongings, but others who were not in the park at the time returned later to find everything they owned gone.
“They showed up to their entire life being gone,” Howard said. “It was trashed. They bulldozed people’s property.”
Homeless Out Loud sued the city about five years ago after a similar sweep. The class-action lawsuit was settled recently and included a clause that says the city must give homeless residents 72 hours notice of eviction. The city did not provide the required notice for Wednesday’s sweep, citing a public health emergency clause, Howard said.
Not one person who was living at Lincoln Park took authorities up on the offer of a bed at the shelter at National Western, she said, calling the charter bus parked at the park a public relations stunt. Just one person got on the bus, but only to escape the police presence, she said.
“They just scattered,” Howard said. “That was the only option. Do you expect somebody to go out and rent an apartment?”
The camp at Lincoln Park was the largest of the tent cities that have appeared during the past few months in and around downtown Denver. The nonprofit Denver Homeless Out Loud counted 664 tents in one night this month, including about 150 in Lincoln Park and about 80 surrounding Morey Middle School in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. Tents also line several blocks just north of downtown’s skyscrapers, along 22nd Street.
The city has backed off enforcement of the overnight camping ban during the pandemic, following guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that recommended cities allow outdoor camping instead of putting people in shelters. Meanwhile, city leaders have discussed opening a handful of “safe outdoors” spaces — similar to tent cities but regulated.
The city’s Department of Public Health and Environment was aware of the planned sweep. For days, outreach workers and Denver park rangers have been telling people sleeping in the park that “a temporary closure of the area is imminent,” offering connections to services and shelters, said Ann Cecchine-Williams, the department’s deputy director.
But the department decided not to post advance warning about the sweep.
City officials determined that an advanced posting wasn’t appropriate “because of concerns around the recent escalating violence in encampments,” Cecchine-Williams said. “The safety of all involved, including the general public, is our top priority.”
The park was the scene of a triple shooting this month that left one person dead.
Lincoln Park presented “significant public and environmental health risks,” Cecchine-Williams said in an emailed statement. It will reopen after it’s cleaned up and restored to a “safe and stable state.”
During the cleanup there were two arrests made, Robinson said.
Denver Public Schools board member Tay Anderson was also injured during the cleanup. Anderson told reporters that police were responsible for his injuries, which led him to seek medical care. He said he was shoved.
A video from the scene showed an emotional Anderson being helped from the scene and holding his head.
“My body hurts all over,” Anderson tweeted. “I will be OK!”
Robinson said Anderson was hurt when police officers tried to move homeless advocates and protesters from an entrance gate to the park. “It is unclear, so far, if in this large group of people that he was indeed shoved by a police officer,” Robinson said. “That is under investigation”
Robinson said Anderson possibly fell.
Robinson, nevertheless, apologized to Anderson and vowed to hold those responsible if it’s determined there was wrongdoing. “I’m sorry that this happened to you,” he said.
Denver police and health officials in January cleared out a similar encampment in Lincoln Park citing public safety concerns.