Denver announced new agreement on encampment

Denver must give notice before camp evictions. Photo: Ayden Adair · The Sentry

Denver, homeless community reach settlement in class action lawsuit
Denver must give notice before camp evictions.
Photo: Ayden Adair · The Sentry

On Feb. 27, the city of Denver reached a settlement with Denver’s homeless community in a class action lawsuit three years in the making. In 2016, civil rights attorney Jason Flores-Williams filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Denver’s homeless community, claiming that the constitutional rights of Denver’s homeless population were routinely being violated by Denver’s homeless encampment sweeps. The historic case also marks the first time in US history that homelessness has been designated as an entire representative class of individuals in a lawsuit, federal or otherwise.

Whereas previously Denver police would confiscate and dispose of property in encampments without prior notice, the new settlement requires Denver police to provide a seven-day notice before conducting encampment sweeps and a 48-hour posted notice before confiscating unattended items. All six of the representative plaintiffs were also awarded $5,000 each in the settlement.

Other key provisions include an expansion of the number of public lockers, trash cans, and needle-disposal sites; the creation of a city-funded mobile health unit; the creation of an advisory group; an expansion to the Denver Day Works program which provides temporary employment to people experiencing homelessness; and written posted notices advising homeless individuals of scheduled sweeps, as well as the locations and hours of operation of nearby lockers.

This agreement has largely been welcomed on all sides as a step in the right direction, but for many, the larger issue remains the lack of a wider understanding of homelessness among the public.

“One of the main criticisms I hear is that this initiative won’t solve homelessness. No, it won’t solve homelessness, but criminalizing it will not solve anything either,” Coby Wikselaar, a Harding Fellow for Student Homelessness and Hunger Initiatives at CU Denver, said. “Between citations, sweeps, emergency medical services, and other expenditures, we waste a lot of taxpayer dollars criminalizing people for being poor.”

Wikselaar also points out that one of the most important aspects of addressing homelessness is making efforts around ending the stigma around it. She remarked, “If I use the word homelessness, there’s a weird understanding where people envision old, smelly, bearded drug-addicts. But people don’t really realize just how close any one of us could be to being without a home unexpectedly.”

Her sentiments are widely shared, even by those currently experiencing homelessness. 

“You show me a person who is homeless, and I’ll show you a person who has faced circumstances beyond his control,” John Alexander said, a longtime homeless advocate, public speaker, and vendor for the Denver Voice, a local newspaper that provides employment to homeless individuals. “There’s just a lack of understanding on all sides. It’s that simple,” Alexander added, “and it comes from people on every level: The homeless, the people who are trying to help, the junkies, everybody.”

Before it can officially come into effect, the settlement must first be approved by a US District Court judge and the Denver City Council.

In May, Denver voters will have the opportunity to vote on Ballot Initiative 300, or the “camping ban,” which, if overturned, would give Denver citizens facing homelessness the right to sleep in their cars, the right to sleep publicly, the right to reasonable public privacy, and the right to rest in a non-obstructive manner.

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