On July 11, Mayor Michael Hancock delivered a “State of the City” address full of soaring, hopeful rhetoric about transportation, equitable development and “innovative projects” like Denver’s Union Station. He paid particular attention to homelessness and Denver’s low-income residents.
But mere days later, actions by the Denver police seemed to undermine his optimistic promises.
In his address, Hancock described a new affordable-housing program that he drafted in partnership with Denver City Council members Robin Kniech and Albus Brooks.
“Every day, as I go to work, I take with me the 12,000 people who do not have jobs, the hundreds of children who are homeless,” Hancock said. “This city will not rest until Denver’s success is shared by everyone.”
Not 48 hours later, before the sun rose on Wednesday, July 13, Hancock’s police department conducted a crackdown on encampments at Arkins Court and Confluence Park. As originally reported by Westword, the sweep began at 1:30 AM at Confluence Park at the intersection of 15th and Little Raven. Two arrests and ten tickets were issued, mostly for curfew violations.
The police continued to issue tickets to people sleeping along the river, many of whom moved to the downtown area after a large encampment at the Mission and Triangle area was swept in March.
At 6:30 a.m., the police reached “Atkins Camp,” which is located just above the Platte River. Roughly 50-75 people were asked to “move along.” The police confiscated property, including vehicles, and there was no advance written notice of the sweep aside from flyers distributed by service and advocacy group Denver Homeless Out Loud.
Homeless Out Loud also livestreamed the sweeps in an effort to hold the police accountable.
What viewers saw was unsettling. About 20 policemen showed up to coerce 12 unhoused people into moving, giving them no prior notice.
DPD has adjusted the grounds it uses to displace people during the sweeps it has conducted over the past several months. In the past, officers often invoked Denver’s camping ban, established in 2012, as justification for arrest. But the ban stipulates that officers must connect individuals with services when they arrest or ticket them. Now, police are instead citing parking violations, property encumbrance and curfew ordinances.
“The city is saying, ‘There is nowhere you can go, there is nowhere you can sleep,” Nathan Woodliff-Stanley, Executive Director of Colorado ACLU, told The Independent.
“The city’s not giving any short-term solutions for people who are homeless,” Woodliff-Stanley said. “Instead, they’re giving the message that shelters and jail are the only options.”
What’s wrong with shelters?
For one thing, there’s not enough room. The ACLU estimates that there are about nine unhoused people in Denver for every four shelter beds. Further, people aren’t allowed to bring some of their property into shelters, which can be a big deterrent. Also, many people experiencing homelessness suffer from mental illness, which can make living in close contact with others uncomfortable and even dangerous.
“There needs to be a rethinking of how the city approaches homelessness,” Woodliff-Stanley said. “The thinking is that if they make life for the homeless miserable enough, they’ll go somewhere else, but that’s just not true.”
Some are finding it hard to square the sentiment Hancock presented during his July 11 speech with the recent encampment crackdowns.
“Each and every day, I am motivated to provide every resident with the opportunity to fulfill their God-given potential, to provide well for their families, and to have a path forward, even if they stumble,” Hancock said then.
But Woodliff-Stanley countered, “Our reaction was really that actions speak louder than words. They’re following up with even more aggressive sweeps.”
Mayor Hancock’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment in time for this story’s deadline.
Hancock’s comments were not all rhetoric. He unveiled a two-pronged affordable housing plan, which is projected to raise $150 million for 6,000 low-to-moderate income homes over the next 10 years.
The funding will come from two sources: an increase in city property tax rates, which is estimated to cost the typical Denver homeowner $12 per year and $145 per $1M of value for commercial property owners, and new development impact fees, from $0.40 per square for for industrial and agricultural development to $1.50 per square foot for multi-family residential properties.
Both of these will have an impact on property owners, but the latter is likely to be more controversial. In his speech, Mayor Hancock anticipated criticism.
“[People will say] ‘It’s too expensive and we can’t afford it’,” Hancock said.
But the city’s breakdown of the plan, available on its website, shows that the $1.50-per-square-foot fee ceiling is lower than many other comparable cities. Neighboring Boulder’s fee ceiling for new development is $9.53 per square foot, and San Francisco’s is $24.03.
In addition to this new plan, Hancock announced a new city office to support the homeless and low-income community. It’s called the Office of HOPE (Housing and Opportunities for People Everywhere).
In his speech, Hancock said that his objective was for this office to “bring a coordinated and comprehensive approach to the programs, policies and projects along the full homeless-to-housing spectrum.” He went on to say, “We will knock down silos, refocus city agencies and create a fortified effort to help those who need a home find a home. “
Advocates for the homeless community expressed cautious optimism about the efficacy of the proposals.
Cathy Alderman of service and advocacy group Colorado Coalition for the Homeless wrote in an email, “We look forward to learning more about the Office of HOPE … and how we can work more closely with the City on creating long-term and lasting solutions for homelessness.” She said she hopes the measures will make the city “less aggressive in their enforcement actions and ‘move along’ orders against the Denver homeless community.”
For Woodliff-Stanley, the bottom line is simple. “The city thinks it can solve this problem through policing,” he said. “We just think that’s a really bad approach. That only makes the problem worse.”
Photo credit: waferboard, Creative Commons, Flickr