A young woman shrieked and howled Wednesday morning as she stomped across Arkins Court toward Brighton Boulevard, away from the homeless encampment where she’d been sleeping of late. She overturned a metal trash barrel as if to punctuate her anger, and people in the area turned their heads at the loud clang.
Earlier in the day, police had busted the encampment along the South Platte River near Arkins and 29th Street. At least three dozen people have been camping there, in the shadow of a massive new housing development in the gentrified Five Points enclave known as the River North Art District.
Those who happened to be there when the cops arrived were given the chance to bundle their things or send them to a storage facility a few blocks away, where the city will hold people’s belongings for up to 30 days.
Those who weren’t around when the sweep began — the young woman included — returned to find their things had been sent to storage without their consent.
“She’s freaking out because her stuff was taken,” explained Terese Howard, a volunteer organizer with Denver Homeless Out Loud. “Her stuff is gone because she went somewhere to run an errand, came back, and her stuff was gone. She’s trying to retrieve it but she can’t right now because the storage place isn’t even open and the stuff wasn’t labeled under her name. It was just taken.”
Such scenes are becoming more routine in Denver. People experiencing homelessness camp out, alone or in groups, and they are inevitably told to move along during what are known as “sweeps” of the homeless. Wednesday’s crack-down was relatively large-scale, and came just 17 days after Denver’s biggest sweep in recent memory, near the intersection of Park Avenue West and Lawrence Street in the Ballpark neighborhood. That one affected more than 100 people, some of whom relocated to the spot police cleared out on Wednesday.
The sweep in Ballpark was necessary, city officials said, because the tent city that had sprung up there brought with it public health concerns.
“You should have seen the feces and rats around here,” Denver Police Sgt. Brian Conover told Westword.
Conover was present for Wednesday’s sweep, too, which the city said was a response to safety concerns. “We had a life safety issue occurring along this stretch of Arkins, with people putting up tents adjacent to a busy roadway,” said Nancy Kuhn, a spokeswoman for Denver’s Department of Public Works, in a text message. “There were about 30 people sleeping/camping adjacent to a busy roadway. It’s not a safe place for people to be.”
Kuhn said the city also responded because it got a complaint about the encampment, which was on Denver Parks and Recreation land.
Asked why the city took the belongings of people who weren’t present when the sweep began, Kuhn said, “We store personal belongings so they can be retrieved by owners.”
For several hours, those affected by the sweep packed their things onto grocery carts and slowly moved out. Ranging from teens to folks well into middle age, they stuffed their carts with clothes, mattress pads, propane tanks, tarps, a few personal items — the bare necessities.
P.J. D’Amico, an advocate for the homeless who lives in Buffalo Creek, estimates he’s witnessed 40 sweeps in Denver over the past four years. He called Wednesday’s sweep “the most aggressive I’ve ever seen.”
“They’re descending onto these people without any warning or any time to move. In the past when they’ve done this, it’s this whack-a-mole thing where they say, ‘Hey, you can’t be here and so (the homeless) move across the street or somewhere else,” added D’Amico, who live-streamed the sweep on Wednesday. “This time, they didn’t give people a chance to claim their property.”
He, like others interviewed for this story, seemed shaken by what happened to the young woman who stormed off after learning her belongings had been taken.
Some disagreed with D’Amico’s assessment of the sweep as unusually aggressive. Dorian Phillips, 42, who was staying at the Ballpark encampment until that was shut down, called Wednesday’s sweep “much more respectful” than others. Still, he said he was bothered that some in the encampment found their belongings were taken to storage without their consent.
“They’re taking people’s s—,” he said. “It’s crazy.”
“I don’t know what the (heck) I’m supposed to do,” said Ikemish Anthony, 35, as she packed up her things. She and Phillips have been married 16 years and suffer on-and-off homelessness, despite the fact that Anthony works full-time at a restaurant on Colfax Avenue.
“Some of us work. I do work. I’ve always been working. But $15 an hour isn’t enough,” she said.
Asked what she’d do after moving off of Arkins, she responded, “I guess I’ll worry about where I sleep tonight, tonight.”
D’Amico and Denver Homeless Out Loud are planning a “sleep-in” event for the eve of Thanksgiving. They hope to get at least 200 people, homeless and housed alike, to sleep outside to raise awareness of Denver’s criminalization of homelessness; it is illegal to sleep outside in this city, as it is in many other Front Range cities. D’Amico said mayoral and city council candidates will join them for the event, the location of which they aren’t prepared to disclose publicly, for fear of tipping off police. Activists are also hopeful they’ll win voter support to overturn the camping ban during Denver’s May election. Similar efforts have failed repeatedly at the state legislature.
Many choose to sleep outside even though homeless shelters are available. They say that’s because the shelters are packed, have dehumanizing rules, and are unsafe and unsanitary.
“The shelters suck and they’re always full. So in the meantime, we got tents,” Phillips said, as he puffed a cigarette and his wife packed up.
He paused, and added, “It’s cold out here.”