‘I’m so tired of the sweeps’: Denver clears out homeless encampment

Advocacy group files class-action lawsuit in federal court citing alleged unconstitutional homeless sweeps

By: - October 6, 2020 2:52 pm

Sophie Elias, 40, packs up her belongings on Oct. 6, 2020, at the corner of 14th Avenue and Logan Street in downtown Denver during an encampment clearing. Elias was released from prison last April and has had difficulty finding employment because of her criminal record. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

Denver residents Sophie Elias and her husband have lived in a tent at the corner of 14th Avenue and Logan Street for the past month and a half. They got married last month and moved to the area after the homeless encampment in front of Morey Middle School was dispersed in early August. 

On Tuesday morning, the couple woke up with the sun to police officers telling them to pack up their things and move along.

“I’ve been doing this since I was 12 years old. I’m 40,” Elias said during a press conference on Tuesday, which was organized by local homeless advocates.“The government hasn’t done s***, and they won’t do s*** and that’s the problem. They want to sweep us and sweep us and sweep us. And we get tired. I’m so tired of the sweeps.”

Residents of the encampment were notified last week by public health official that they would need to move due to health concerns such as increased amounts of trash, discarded syringes and the presence of rodents, according to Tammy Vigil, a spokeswoman for Denver’s Department of Public Health and Environment.

Vigil said her department has received hundreds of complaints from surrounding neighbors about safety concerns related to the encampment.

Tents line the street at the corner of 14th Avenue and Logan Street in downtown Denver on Oct. 6, 2020. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

As people packed up their belongings early Tuesday morning, a small group of protesters, organized by two nearby residents, gathered to oppose the sweep and demand long-term solutions. 

“People in our neighborhood, they say they feel for the homeless. And yet they call them criminals and don’t want them to be in their neighborhood,” said Alexis Valeriano Hernandez, who helped organize the protest on Tuesday morning with his partner My Khe Nguyen. “They say ‘Put them in another yard that is not mine’ without really addressing a solution.” 

On Aug. 12, Valeriano and Nguyen’s landlord set up a virtual meeting between residents of the apartment complex and Teresa Gillian, a community resource officer with the Denver Police Department, to discuss how the growing encampment was impacting their property. In an email sent to residents after the meeting, the property manager, Venetia Makshanoff, encouraged her tenants to take photos if they see “issues that directly affect our property.”

Denver has yet to establish a sanctioned homeless camp as promised. In June, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock said he would allow people to live on the streets and promised that several temporary sanctioned camps would be established. Since his announcement, two spots have been proposed and swiftly shot down by nearby residents. 

Protesters gathered at the corner of 14th Avenue and Logan Street in downtown Denver on Oct. 6, 2020, to propose a sweep of a nearby homeless encampment and to demand long-term solutions. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

“How can you justify spending all this money on pushing people out of their homes when they have nowhere else to go?” said Sera Hake, a 31-year-old Denver resident who came out to oppose the sweep. “And to keep doing it over and over and over again. It’s so cruel.”

Throughout Tuesday morning, residents of the encampment relocated their tents less than 100 feet away despite another sweep being scheduled in the area for Wednesday and Thursday.

“I can’t believe I live in a city where this is the norm and that it’s accepted,” Hake said. “And especially during COVID. It’s against CDC regulations right now to be doing this. And they don’t care and they’re not being held accountable. They close down streets for restaurants and businesses but we can’t find any space for people that need help?” 

On Monday, the advocacy group Denver Homeless Out Loud filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the city for what they say are unconstitutional homeless sweeps that are in violation of a previous settlement agreement.

“We’re not in a position right now with thousands, and I mean thousands, of people living on our streets in tents or with tarps or with nothing because people want to be here,” said Terese Howard of Denver Homeless Out Loud on Tuesday. “No. We have a history of policies and practices that have led us to this position by our government.”

Sophie Elias braids her hair in front of her cousin’s tent on Oct. 6, 2020. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

Elias said that herself and others in the encampment work really hard to keep the area clean. “I get up at 5:30 every morning to make sure this place is clean, to make sure the trash is taken out,” she said.

She asked Hancock to put himself in her shoes for a day. “Come take a day out of your busy schedule and live in a tent for 48 hours and see what we go through on the daily,” she said, as tears rolled down her cheeks onto her bright red dress.

“I have people threaten my life on a daily,” Elias said. “Not all of us are drug dealers and not all of us are out here being stupid or out here causing havoc. Some of us are on waiting lists to get help. We are just out here trying to live.”

Elias, who was released from prison in April and has had difficulty finding employment because of her criminal record, said she’s been on a housing waiting list for the past three years through the St. Francis Center, a nearby homeless shelter.

Sarah Hansen-Newell, a member of the religious organization Network Ministries, was there on Tuesday helping Elias and her husband pack up their things. Hansen-Newell, who used to be a housing counselor, said she has known many of the residents of the encampment for over 20 years.

J.D. (left) and Birdie (right) pose for a picture in front of their tent on Oct. 5, 2020. The two have known each other for over 20 years. Birdie came back to Denver a month and a half ago from North Dakota to visit her husband’s grave. She’s been staying with J.D. ever since. The homeless encampment in Denver that they had been living in was cleared on Oct. 6. J.D., who worked as a trucker for 10 years before hurting his back, said he was used to being forced to move around because he grew up in a military family. “I try to go with the flow,” he said.

“We have to find a better way than splitting up the community like this,” she said. “It’s really hard to see. And the way they administer housing in general, it’s just not fair. A lot of the folks here have been in apartments and it just makes them feel like they’re not competent enough to be in an apartment.”

She said from what she could see, the residents of the encampment were doing a good job of keeping the area as tidy as could be.

“This place was clean,” said Hansen-Newell, through the chain link fence that was set up in the middle of the night before the camp was cleared on Tuesday. “They were taking care of themselves and developing things they value and really just making a home.” 

“For the first time, other than a jail cell, this woman had a place to come back to every day,” she said, gesturing to Elias. “A place that was hers, with privacy and that gave her a choice. It’s just tough. This whole thing. It’s not a solution.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 3:45 to add comments from Denver’s Department of Public Health and Environment.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Moe Clark
Moe Clark

Moe Clark is a freelance journalist and former Colorado Newsline reporter who covered criminal justice, housing, homelessness and other social issues.