DENVER — The City of Denver has tried to reduce homeless encampments for years. Now it’s stepping up enforcement of the urban camping ban with a new Street Enforcement Team made up of civilians patrolling the streets, armed with the power to issue citations for ordinance violations.
"I don’t want to equate homelessness with crime, but the problem of unsheltered homelessness and encampments has been something that our community has raised a lot of concerns about," said Armando Saldate, executive director of the Denver Department of Public Safety. "They need to understand it’s a violation of the law and the mechanism for that violation is a citation for this offense."
For months now, Saldate has been hiring and overseeing the new team. They’ll begin writing citations in the coming weeks, or as soon as their uniforms are available. The team was supposed to launch last year.
"Our team is fitted. We’re just waiting on the uniforms to arrive," said Saldate. "I needed to make sure that those folks who were from the street enforcement team could differentiate themselves when they do take on that enforcement mechanism."
Saldate said this isn’t supposed to be a team of citizen vigilantes writing monetary fines to people who can’t afford to live anywhere else but sidewalks and in parks. He said the citations won’t come with monetary fines, but instead people will have to appear in Denver’s homeless outreach court and could be sentenced to jail or community service.
"Obviously you can go to jail for this. You can get to jail. There can be community service associated with taking care of this ticket," said Saldate. "That enforcement mechanism is something that we don’t want to do, but it does need to be a consequence for the folks who continually resist those efforts."
Denver has tried alternative responses to non-violent, low level police calls before. The STAR van sends mental health professionals and paramedics to people in crisis. Saldate says the Street Enforcement Team has trained with the STAR team and others to learn about behavioral health. They’ve also trained with the city attorney’s office to learn the 20 or so ordinances these civilians will soon have the power to enforce, everything from urban camping to smoking weed in public.
Saldate says one of the goals of the Street Enforcement Team will be to attempt to connect people experiencing homelessness with resources. That can be housing through places like the Safe Outdoor Camping sites.
"One thing we’re not going to use as a measure for success is the number of citations that are issued," said Saldate. "If we’re having to write tickets and we’re having to do it continually, we have to do something different."
Homeless advocates have spoken out against the team writing tickets, including Vinnie Cervantes with the Denver Alliance for Street Health Response. He’s working on launching an app where people can upload their interactions with the enforcement team and keep track of where they are.
"Bringing people to court who have done nothing other than try to survive on our street is not the way to solve these issue," said Cervantes. "It furthers the practice of criminalizing people who have nowhere else to go."
The enforcement team will not be tasked with physically sweeping the camps or even putting up the notices required by law that the camp will be swept in the coming days. Because police officers wear body worn cameras, the city will require that they are the ones that handle sweeps to make sure all interactions are caught on camera.
A complaint against a police officer can be investigated by the office of the independent monitor or citizen oversight board. Since these are civilians, the complaints will first come through the department of public safety.
"If we have complaints about this team, I want to make sure that they’re handled swiftly and with all eyes," Saldate said.
The Department of Public Safety expects that the team will begin issuing citations in the coming weeks, as soon as they get their uniforms.