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Denver is getting civilians involved in its campaign against public homelessness

The new Street Enforcement Team would give civilians the power to issue citations to people violating city ordinances

DENVER — Denver's sustained campaign to break up homeless camps has been controversial, challenged in court, and now, partially headed into the hands of civilians.

The new Street Enforcement Team isn’t solely targeting people experiencing homelessness, but it was started to enforce things like the camping ban.

The City of Denver is looking for six people to be part of the new Street Enforcement Team. Depending on who you ask, it’s either a step toward solving homelessness or a step toward making it far worse.

"I hope we see that our residents can see and our business owners can see a positive effect from this," said Armando Saldate III, assistant deputy director of the Denver Department of Public Safety. 

The Public Safety Department will be in charge of the program once it launches, most likely sometime in the next couple of months. The city is already hiring for positions.

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Homeless advocacy groups argue the program would make the problem worse. 

"It is a disaster waiting to happen," said Ana Cornelius with Denver Homeless Out Loud. "This is not a solution. This is a way of increasing mass-homelessness in our city."

The new pilot program will give a small group of civilians the power to issue citations to people disobeying a handful of city ordinances, first reported by the Denver Voice. Think of camping on city streets, smoking weed in public, trespassing, or being in a park after curfew. The team would be unarmed and not dressed as police officers, just wearing a shirt with the city logo. 

Saldate admits this is a step towards enforcing laws often broken by those experiencing homelessness.

"There is a lot of frustration over the lack of enforcement of the urban campaign ordinance. That’s one of the things that we hope to address with this," said Saldate. "There is a big outcry from our community to do something else. We know that outreach isn’t enough. We’re out there all the time and we can’t reach every encampment there is. There are conditions at these encampments sometimes where enforcement is needed."

Both the city and advocacy groups agree that finding permanent housing options is the ultimate solution for homelessness. While the city says the problem has gotten to a point where enforcement is needed, advocacy groups say giving people fines could lead to problems piling up. Things like court dates and even warrants make it harder for people to find housing.

"It’s creating barriers to housing," said Cornelius. "If you have a lot of things to pay off, when things accumulate and you end up with warrants, those things will all prohibit you from moving into housing."

Applicants for the team need to have a GED and experience with "regulation compliance, enforcement, safety, community outreach, customer service," but no mental health or crisis intervention experience is required. They say they’ll train for that before they send the team out on the streets.

"It feels like a way to basically deputize civilians to enforce the urban camping ban and other policies around homelessness and public safety," said Vinnie Cervantes with the homeless advocacy group Denver Alliance for Street Health Response (DASHR).

DASHR helped support the creation of the STAR program over the past years, a van that responds to non-violent 911 calls with a paramedic and mental health professional. He says this program would punish homelessness, rather than offering help like STAR.

RELATED: Denver's STAR program sees promising results in first six months

"Without a cop enforcing these kinds of policies, people are going to question where this is coming from and what authority they have," said Cervantes. "I think it will lead directly to escalation. I think there’s a lot of people who would say, why are you giving me a ticket?"

Saldate says the team could call for help from the STAR van or police officers if needed, emphasizing that this is another tool in addition to other programs. 

"We recognize that we’re not going to enforce our way out of this problem," said Saldate. "We can’t just arrest everyone for this. This is not what the goal of this team is whatsoever."

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