Statement Regarding the Unprecedented Sweep Reasoning of August 24th

Statement Regarding the Unprecedented Sweep Reasoning of August 24th

On August 21st, a random masked man decided to shoot someone walking by an encampment between 17th and 18th on Logan St. This led to two residents personally falling victim to stray bullets, as well as another individual receiving up to $7k in damage to his vehicle. These victims needed sympathy and care from their community – support in the form of things like thorough medical treatment and follow up, mental health support, and property damage reimbursement. Instead, the “investigation” that followed fell short of providing any of that, and further plunged their lives into danger and duress by garnering their encampment undeserved negative attention, to which the Mayor and city entities (DPD, DDPHE, SET) responded by forcing them all to pick up their entire lives and dissipate into all different directions with nowhere safe to go. 

The day after the shooting, August 22nd, the above named entities responded to the incident by walking around the area at around 2:30pm, with around 15 representatives traveling as a group, intimidating residents, questioning them about unrelated matters, rigorously shaking the foundations of tents to see if residents were home, just to tape up and pass out notices for a sweep to be taking place the very next day, starting at 7am. This was less than 24 hours notice, and residents were panicked. Immediately they themselves, alongside advocates, vocalized their distress at having so little time to make preparations, and having nowhere to go. That night, at around 10pm, Mayor Mike Johnston reached out to HAND to suggest that they would be offering an additional 24 hours of notice, but would not consider stopping the sweep altogether.

Of course, whenever a group of people are scapegoated in society, fear-based reasons are given to the community to justify actions that further jeopardize the scapegoats’ lives. Here we will individually address why the various reasons given, both quoted from the printed notice and reiterated by the Mayor and his team, cannot justify the decision to sweep and violate the rights of the encampment residents as outlined in the Lyall Settlement. 

  1. “On August 21, 2023, two residents of the encampment were shot when gunfire was exchanged in the area.” Denver Police Department reports suggest that the shooter(s) were from outside of the encampment, not from a camp resident, as confirmed also by victims and witnesses at the time. The camp residents are victims, not perpetrators, yet are being subjected to additional trauma so soon after the incident by being told to pack up all their belongings and move to nowhere – given no support or resources.

Furthermore, the unhoused are being criminalized and affected as a whole. Residents of apartment complexes are not evicted because someone shoots a gun in the building – neither should encampment residents be swept to nowhere. Scattering people from this encampment to nearby blocks will not protect them, or anyone else, from violence.

Additionally, if there was need for further investigation, the last thing you would want is for those involved to all disperse randomly to all new places, making it impossible to carry out a proper investigation with questioning those nearby. Clearly, the City’s comfortability with sweeping the entire area suggests that they do not, in fact, view the shooting as an on-going safety risk to the community. They are simply using this situation as a way to scapegoat those experiencing houselessness rather than deeper, more complex, systemic failures. 

  1. “Preceding the shooting, the city received reports about incidents of menacing involving firearms in the encampment.” Once again, this sort of language is meant to criminalize the entire encampment, every one of its individuals, by suggesting that they are all suspects and thus must all be punished by being swept – guilty until proven otherwise. This is highly discriminatory and cannot become the go-to response to shootings. An entire group of people cannot be found guilty of an incident by proxy.
  1. “Additionally, the encampment located in this area has grown significantly from approximately 11 structures on August 18, 2023, to approximately 45 structures on August 22, 2023.” The fact that this is stated so as to seem like an afterthought seems intentional – in fact, the size of the encampment may be one of the biggest concerns of the Mayor’s office, DDPHE, and DPD. This is mostly due to their desire to stay favorable in the eyes of the loud minority who use their entitlement and privilege to speak classist, fear-based hate against visible houseless people, blaming them as individuals rather than the result of a system that has failed them.

The 2022 Housing Report “Pipe Dreams & Picket Fences” revealed what many who are unhoused have known to be true – that only 1-7% of houseless people don’t want housing, while the other 93-99% overwhelmingly do. These past few days, many of these encampment residents reiterated that they would readily move into housing if it was available. Many work at least one job, if not more. Others have pets, and cannot leave their pets for shelter or house rules that would exclude them. Others have responsibilities to friends and family members and feel that their housing would need to allow them to visit, just as housing for housed people would. If housing were available, as Mayor Johnston claims he wants to be the case, then encampments would not be as prolific as they are. 

The size of encampments increases when other encampments around the city are swept and when people face camping ban enforcement in any spot they set up as just one or a few tents. These are the biggest contributors (aside from the lack of attainable housing) to increased size of encampments. If the Mayor wants to reduce the size of a camp, he should not sweep encampment and allow camping ban enforcement around the City. After this sweep at 18th and Logan, which was purported to be needed by the size of the encampment, the camp at 16th and Grant has now grown three times the size as people moved there. This did not thing to address large encampments but make it worse. 

After the sweep was postponed for an additional 24 hours, many individuals took initiative and left anyway, resulting in a nearly 50% reduction in size. If size was the issue, residents vocalized being very willing to work with the Mayor and others to plan a coordinated move of some tents over a period of time that would allow them to do so without being rushed and physically pushing themselves. If this time were given, so many people would not have moved to 16th and Grant which would have meant smaller camps which was what the Mayor wanted. Instead a rushed sweep led to one even bigger camp.

  1. “… active drug use has been observed…” To mention this as a reason for a sweep is an extremely concerning rights violation. With overdose-related deaths occurring at an all-time high, and with the knowledge that “involuntary displacement of people experiencing homelessness (a.k.a. sweeps) may substantially increase drug-related morbidity and mortality” (as determined by Dr. Joshua Barocas’ recently released research study titled Population-Level Health Effects of Involuntary Displacement of People Experiencing Unsheltered Homelessness Who Inject Drugs in US Cities), to then perform a sweep with this as a reason is to inflict further harm on some individuals who instead need support. During the few days overrun by sweep confusion, harm reduction support was not offered or provided. Harm reduction outreach was not present, nor were harm reduction supplies. 
  1. “… accumulated trash and debris has increased considerably.” This is a blatant lie. This camp was quite clean and was even one of the few locations at which the City had begun to implement trash services. Given that this is a new program, there is room for improvement, and the City has taken into consideration maybe half of the feedback provided by advocates and camp residents, including the need for actual receptacles, as well as a more clearly defined trash pickup area. That being said, it was still a very tidy encampment. A nearby property owner had even been supporting residents with additional bags and they had begun to build a mutually supportive relationship in which they received supplies and provided grounds cleanup for the property. Residents described it as a good, working relationship. 

Alongside debunking every reason provided for the sweep, revealing it as a blatant Lyall settlement violation depriving shooting victims and their immediate community of their rights to 7-day notification, there were also some key moments that took place during the sweep that are worth recounting.

  • A black trans woman at the encampment cried in fear for her life and not having anywhere safe to move to – she was told there are no resources available to her. Attempts to secure some sort of safety accommodations for this highly vulnerable individual who had already faced hate violence that same week were thwarted because 1) special accommodations, such as emergency hotel stay, are currently only reserved for those with medical issues and 2) the demand for LGBTQIA+ safe/centered spaces, let alone transgender-specific places, greatly surpasses the availability of such spaces. This highlights a critical problem and the lack of recognition of intersectionality and its effects on houselessness. With the Mayor’s goal of moving 1000 people indoors by December, we hope that he will consider this in his selection so as to protect those most in need. A true public safety response should have considered this element as well, as opposed to a sweep which further endangers her life.
  • Multiple officers on-site admitted that they knew what they were doing was wrong. Denver police department and Street Enforcement Team (SET) officers, despite not being the beacon of righteousness themselves in their well-reported harassment of the unhoused, still vocalized that they did not agree with having to force people to move from their homes and established community to nowhere. One of them was even overheard telling an encampment resident, “Some day, hopefully there will be a better solution… I’ve been preaching that for a long time… I’m at the bottom but I preach that to the top”. 
  • Colorado Coalition for the Homeless (CCH) Associate Director Mary Lippi defaced anti-sweep signs and spewed anti-houseless rhetoric. While walking past the in-process sweep, this executive at the biggest houseless service provider organizations tore down one of the sweep protest signs nearby, engaged one of our members and verbally supported the sweeps, spewing many of the regular NIMBY talking points in support of the sweep. We knew this instigator’s identity due to a work badge she was prominently wearing at the time. We find it deeply concerning, but not surprising, to see an influential figure at an organization with great influence over many aspects of the lives of the unhoused be treating them with such disrespect and disregard. It is a reminder that service providers, by and large, are not advocating for the needs of the people they are supposed to serve.
  • A random middle-aged woman cried privileged tears to police officers about the health of a very old dog belonging to an unhoused resident being swept. This dog was notably of age, with white fur all across its face and body. The woman, dressed in upscale business casual clothing, pleaded with officers during the sweep to take the dog from the man. Not once did she attempt to engage with the owner in conversation herself. Not once did she show any sympathy for the man, or other humans whose lives were violently interrupted by the sweep. Instead of acknowledging the age of the dog, and the fact that many dogs may have different health issues as they age, she immediately made the assumption that his state of health was due to the owner’s inability to care for him. Instead, the dog was seen with constant food and water access throughout the days leading up to the sweep, and even day of. The dog seemed very comfortable by his owner’s side, following him everywhere.
  • In fact, many people during the sweep had pets, preventing them from being able to access shelter options. A common yet ignorant narrative is that individuals on the streets should just get indoors by going to shelters. Pets are not often accommodated at shelters, with many owners choosing to stay with their fur family through thick and thin rather than abandon them. This must be considered when creating the sort of housing solutions that would be effective in reducing houselessness.
  • Most notably, there was a real sense of community amongst unhoused neighbors as they supported each other. People on the streets know how to support each other when the traditional systems of support fail them. They moved in groups, wanting to stay near people they could trust for added safety and comfort. They helped each other pack items and move to be able to 

Ultimately, we cannot accept this sweep response as the precedent for response to shootings. This is a bastardization of the Public Health & Safety Emergency exception to the Lyall Settlement, as it further jeopardizes the lives of those being swept. We cannot succumb to the fear-based scapegoating that puts unhoused lives at far more risk than those of their ignorant housed community members. The Mayor says he recognizes the many failures of sweeps – if that is the case, he needs to stay true to his word, and not repeat this sort of flagrant misuse of an already abused loophole to human rights protections. Every single person swept on August 24th was displaced without anywhere to go. We must do better.

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