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Homelessness crisis lands at Denver airport, prompting cycle of arrests

9Wants to Know has identified 30 people who’ve been repeatedly arrested for trespassing.

DENVER — Denver police have been confronting a growing crisis that has now extended to the airport 25 miles outside the city's core, where bathrooms and warm cover provide refuge for those experiencing homelessness.

9Wants to Know reviewed arrest data, police body camera footage, and dozens of court records, and talked to numerous people at the airport at various times of day to expose a problem faced by the city and police – how to handle a growing number of people experiencing homelessness at one of the country’s largest airports. 

Jerrel, who’s been sleeping at the airport for a couple of weeks, said he can blend in, charge his phone and keep warm for a night while making plans for the next day.

“Just trying to get some resources,” Jerrel said while sitting in a quiet corner of DIA, hoping he wouldn’t be found by police. 

9NEWS has chosen not to fully identify the people experiencing homelessness in this story because advocates say they are in a constant state of crisis and doing so would perpetuate a cycle preventing them from seeking gainful employment.

The city of Denver provided numbers that reveal police contacts with people experiencing homelessness at DIA have nearly tripled since 2018, to 1,001 last year. 

9Wants to Know took a closer look at how often people are arrested for trespassing at Denver’s airport and if they are arrested multiple times in the same year.

City officials cite the convenient access to the airport by the A-Line train as a partial reason for increased contacts. “Train-to-the-plane” service began in 2017. 

Most of the people who have had contact with police left the airport with a warning. But there were at least 72 documented arrests last year, and documented cases of some people repeatedly ignoring court orders to stay away from the airport. 

9Wants to Know analyzed arrest data from the Denver Police Department and found 30 people have been repeatedly arrested for trespassing over the last three years.

Public records show Sam, 38, has been arrested at least 17 times for trespassing at the airport despite repeated “area restrictions” issued by judges since 2020. Body camera footage from one of his arrests shows him bundled up and sitting in an airport breezeway. Sam said the COVID-19 virus motivated him to go to DIA.  

“You guys don’t have any more shelters,” he said. “Too many sick people over there. I’m not trying to get sick either.”

> Watch: 9Wants to Know visited DIA on a random day to talk to those experiencing homelessness seeking shelter in the terminal. Here’s a look at what our crews found.

Sam has been arrested more than any other person at DIA in the last three years. But he is not alone. 9Wants to Know found Denver police arrested 69 people at least twice from 2019 to 2021 at the airport. 

It is clear from the data that if the same person keeps getting arrested for the same thing at DIA, it is usually for trespassing accusations. Eight of the 10 people who were re-arrested most often for the same charge were arrested for trespassing.

Sam has also been accused of accosting travelers. Other people who’ve been repeatedly arrested have also been accused of getting into verbal altercations with airport employees and travelers and stealing bags. 

What people are arrested for at DIA, 2019 to 2021

Use the drop-down to view how often someone was charged for an alleged crime at Denver International Airport from 2019 to 2021.

“I'm not surprised that [those experiencing homelessness] have been going to the airport,” Cathy Alderman, chief communications and public policy officer at the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, said. “I am a little surprised to hear that for some of these repeat offenders, there's not an alternative way to approach these individuals.”

Alderman’s group has been working on the city’s “housing-first” model, which aims to put people like Sam in housing with treatment. Proponents of the model say it’s cheaper than repeated jail visits.  

Alderman also blames the city’s homeless sweeps and camping ban for pushing people far out to the airport. 

“There's both a moral and a fiscal imperative to take a different approach,” Alderman said. 

Over the last several years, the number of people experiencing homelessness has exceeded 30,000 people in the metro area, according to a report by the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative

The pandemic and lack of affordable housing have caused the population to increase by 40%, according to MDHI

City claims services are offered before arresting people

From the city’s perspective, people who are “service resistant” continue to challenge police and airport administrators when arrestees repeatedly return to the airport. 

“Hanging out at the airport is not going to get folks into that pipeline to that long-term sustainable housing,” Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen said. “They don't need to seek this type of shelter at a facility that's not designed as a shelter. We do have resources to get people connected.” 

> Watch: 9Wants to Know visited DIA overnight to see who is left inside the terminal when most have gone home for the night.

Commander Mark Chuck, who oversees police at the airport, said volunteer clinicians who specialize in homelessness have been responding with officers a few times a week. 

“We do, through those resources, try to provide people with other places to go,” Chuck said. 

But Pazen told 9NEWS the department is working on getting more of those resources at the airport more often.

Alderman said homeless sweeps are making the problem worse. She said years of sweeps have pushed people farther and farther away from the city's core. 

"As we see more enforcement of the camping ban in the downtown area, we're pushing people away from where the centralized services are," she said. 

The city denies homeless clean-up sweeps have pushed people out to the airport, saying the same crisis has been showing up at airports across the country. 

In San Jose, California, city officials have been confronting a homeless encampment with hundreds of people on airport property by removing them. According to a news release, at least 200 homeless people lived in the area. They were provided bathrooms, showers, and “connections to street-based social services.” Encampment residents were offered help with getting shelter, per the news release.

“I don't believe there is an innovative program that we have not tried in the city,” said Kristin Bronson, Denver’s City Attorney. 

Bronson said services are always offered to people before their behavior leads to arrest. 

“Obviously, we are not going to give up,” Bronson said. “We're going to continue to help people that are coming out that are in need. But there also has to be a priority for the airport to focus on safety and security.” 

See more on how 9Wants to Know conducted this data analysis here. 

If you have a tip about this investigation or anything else that you think we should focus on, please reach out to the reporters on this story.

Reach investigative reporter Zack Newman through his phone (303-548-9044). You can also call or text securely on Signal through that same number. Email: zack.newman@9news.com.

Contact investigative reporter Jeremy Jojola via his email: jeremy@9news.com.

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