A lawsuit seeking to end Denver’s campaign against homeless camps got a boost yesterday during a hearing with a federal judge.
Denver attorney Jason Flores-Williams filed a class-action lawsuit in August against the city and county of Denver, Mayor Hancock and other city officials over the legality of “homeless sweeps.” Flores-Williams says the city’s policy of shutting down homeless encampments and confiscating property is a violation of the constitutional rights to due process and equal protection.
During Wednesday morning’s hearing, U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Craig Shaffer offered the attorney advice to help him speed up the lawsuit.
The individuals named as defendants in the suit, which include not only Mayor Hancock but city officials like Deputy Chief of Staff Evan Dreyer and Police Chief Robert White, have a special privilege as public officials. It’s called qualified immunity, and it means that cases against them require proof both that they violated a law and that a “reasonable person” would know about the law in questions. The privilege exists to protect public officials, who have to make difficult decisions regularly, from being targeted with lawsuits invoking obscure statutes.
Essentially, proving cases against public officials is time-consuming and difficult. Shaffer suggested that naming only the city and county as defendants would expedite the process.
Flores-Williams agreed, and plans to change the suit. “It was an enlightened choice,” he said. “He gets the urgency in this lawsuit.”
The case has not yet received class-action status, but will likely have secured a decision on their petition for such status by mid-November. That decision is up to U.S. District Judge William Martinez, not Shaffer.
Several homeless individuals who have been involved in the case, either as plaintiffs or general support, joined Flores-Williams in the courtroom. The court issued a special order Wednesday to allow homeless individuals whose ID cards had been seized to enter the courthouse without them.
And before the hearing, a group of homeless people affiliated with Denver Homeless Out Loud gathered for a press conference outside the courthouse to demonstrate why the lawsuit was necessary.
Affordable housing options for low-income Denverites have grown perilously few. Last month, more than 21,000 people entered the city’s annual lottery for 300 Section 8 vouchers. City Council is making an effort to improve circumstances — it passed the Denver’s first-ever dedicated affordable housing fund last month. But it will be at least a year before the fund actually begins providing new housing units.
Ray Lyall, a plaintiff in the case, said that he’s frustrated that other Denverites think shelters are an effective solution to homelessness. “They’re bug-infested, you get infections, they’re overcrowded — it’s like living in a barn,” Ray said. “You can live better outside.”
Asked what he would say to Mayor Hancock if he were given the opportunity, Lyall said, “Nothing you could print.”
The case’s next hearing is scheduled for October 20.