The city of Denver has asked members of the homeless community to leave a four-block area that officials have dubbed a public health risk following hundreds of 911 calls and reports of urine, feces and rats.
“I’ve been a firefighter in the downtown area for about 20 years, and I’ve never seen it to this point we’ve gotten today,” Denver Fire Department spokesperson Greg Pixley said.
The city began cleanup efforts Monday in a three-square-block area surrounding the Samaritan House shelter. That covers from 21st to 24th streets, and Arapahoe and Lawrence streets.
Last week and over the weekend, Denver Public Works spokesperson Nancy Kuhn said outreach teams spoke with people camping in the area to connect them with resources and warn them about the impending clean-up.
She said Monday, crews cleaned and power-washed the alleys and sidewalks near the Samaritan House due to “growing concern about health and safety risks along the sidewalks here.”
“We’ve got, you know, feces, urine,” Kuhn said. “We’ve got rats, we’ve got needles, and we are just asking folks to sort of clear off the sidewalks for now so that we can get in and clean them.”
Kuhn said storage space was available for people displaced by the cleaning efforts.
“I see a violation of human rights and a violation of dignity,” said Terese Howard, an organizer for Denver Homeless Out Loud. “I see people losing their belongings, and I see people losing their place to survive.”
Since Jan. 1, Denver Fire said it has gotten nearly 2,200 calls to the area around 23rd and Lawrence streets, and including two fire calls in recent days.
The most recent was on Sunday, when Pixley said crews found bedding and sheets burning. One person was arrested for that incident.
“Should there be one errant flame, it could find a number of combustible materials to take off,” Pixley said.
Danica Lee, the director of the Public Health Inspections Division of the Department of Public Health and the Environment, said there have been an increasing number of people camping in the area over the last few months, and that conditions have been deteriorating.
The goal, Lee said, is to encourage people experiencing homelessness to sleep in shelters rather than their own camps now that the weather is getting colder.
“During the last cold snap, we did have four people who were living outdoors die,” she said.
Howard said these efforts will not work as intended.
“You want to talk about getting ahead of cold weather? That’s exactly the opposite of what they’re doing right now,” Howard said. “Right now, you’re kicking people out to the streets where they have no tents, where they have no place to reside, where they’re going to be pushed down the river, where they’re going to be separated from their communities, losing their belongings.”
The city of Denver has been sued for its sweeps of homeless camps by advocates who say doing so is a constitutional violation.