A Denver Police Department officer watches the tape line while the tent camp at Morey Middle School in Denver is swept on August 5, 2020. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

People experiencing homelessness face a multitude of dilemmas each day, whether it’s securing a place to sleep, food to eat, or, for families, managing children and education. People experiencing homelessness in Denver experience stigma and social isolation, as well as political isolation through “anti-homeless” architecture, such as benches with an armrest in the middle to prevent someone from sleeping or spikes on garden blocks. 

Under Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, homelessness has been further criminalized, and as a result, people experiencing homelessness have to fight for the right to exist in their community. 

Enter COVID-19 and the situation worsens; homeless shelters that were turning away people prior to the pandemic are now having to turn away even more as homelessness and unemployment rise. 

Grace Sasser

In an effort to help the issue, auxiliary shelters were created at the National Western Complex and the Denver Coliseum. However, that did not prevent the need for thousands to sleep in homeless encampments across the city.

In Denver, a camping ban that was passed by the City Council in 2012 prevents people from sleeping on public or private property, unless it is in an “authorized” space. Public property includes streets, alleyways, parks, rivers, underpasses and more. 

This makes it virtually impossible to find an authorized safe space to sleep; the added stress of COVID-19 and the inaccessibility of shelters compounds the issue. Homeless encampments provide safety in numbers as well as community, which help people to sleep slightly easier at night.

Last month, a Denver Post article said the city in 2020 spent nearly half a million dollars on homeless-camp sweeps, not counting “the hourly costs for city staff and police officers — often, dozens work a single sweep,” so the true cost can be assumed to be much higher.

During these sweeps, people lose their belongings as police officers throw them away and tell them that they have to move on. Being homeless is traumatizing enough as is, but in a sweep, the trauma is compounded.

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There are numerous ways in which Denver can improve its relationship with people experiencing homelessness. Unfortunately, the social construct of “not in my backyard” (NIMBY-ism) is a significant hurdle to move past. 

Even if Mayor Hancock and city officials were to suddenly reverse their stance on homelessness and remove the urban camping ban, there is still the difficulty of changing the general population’s mind on who is homeless, and why. However, the “why” is irrelevant when arguing for the basic dignity and treatment of people experiencing homelessness. 

All people should have the ability, at the very least, to sleep somewhere safe and not have the constant threat of social, emotional, monetary and material safety being swept away.

There are several options in which the city could have used the money it spent on homeless sweeps on supporting the homeless instead of traumatizing them:

  • Put the money toward an additional “tiny home” village or another sanctioned campsite, both of which have been proven to be successful. 
  • Invest the funds in an existing center helping the homeless so that they can improve and expand their services. 
  • Hire social workers and counselors to serve people experiencing homelessness.
  • Create a coalition with other metro-area counties to overturn anti-homeless legislature and architecture.

It is likely that the United States will experience a surge in homelessness as the economy continues to fluctuate and unemployment continues to rise during COVID-19. Throughout its history, the U.S. has been more concerned about putting a Band-Aid on the issue, rather than fixing the broken system that causes it. 

The homeless sweeps in Denver are a prime example of this. Rather than provide assistance or benefits for the community at large, officials simply move a marginalized community over a few blocks over and the cycle repeats itself. Yet despite their half-million-dollar efforts to sweep them away, people experiencing homelessness still exist, whether they are sleeping in a park or in a hidden alleyway.

We cannot continue to let Denver ignore the homeless.

Grace Sasser is a second-year master of social work student at the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work.

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Grace Sasser

Special to The Colorado Sun