Commentary

‘Tis the season to admit Denver hates its poor

Increased law enforcement at Union Station is not the answer

December 21, 2021 4:45 am

Michael Vinluan, left, and Nathan Rasmussen carry their ballots to a drop box before work outside Union Station on March 3, 2020, in Denver. (Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images)

Denver’s Living Room, otherwise known as Union Station, has been under scrutiny, as there’s been an increase in safety issues and the presence of unhoused folks. Regional Transit District union president Lance Longenbohn recently called the place a “lawless hellhole” and statements from city leaders have echoed similar sentiments.

These claims have led to increases in security and Denver police and the announcement that RTD will incorporate TSA into its approach to enforce a sense of safety at Union Station. I believe this is the wrong direction, as the greatest discomfort I felt in a recent trip to Union Station was the abundance of law enforcement and the hostile environment they created.

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In Longenbohn’s comments on Union Station and those made by Mayor Michael Hancock, both referenced problems related to loiterers and condemned them as elements that have made the station unsafe. I reflected on something I’ve felt often and have said on occasion — that once again, in Denver, the difference between unwanted loitering and highly-desired lingering is the perceived ability to spend money. In Union Station, this is the case as those who spend money at the restaurants and shops are welcome to the comfy chairs and a long stay. However, for unhoused folks seeking an indoor refuge from the cold and a bench to sit on in one of Denver’s very few public spaces, they are subject to harassment and under close watch to ensure they don’t close their eyes or stay too long.

A recent article by Denverite, whose staff spent 15 hours at Union Station to see for themselves what the issues were, noted constant harassment of people by police and security, with many folks reporting they were violently woken up by banging on their chair and told to leave. One comment noted that the issues in Union Station have only escalated because they have moved from Civic Center Park, which was closed earlier this year and opened in time for the Chistkindlmarket.

Once again, in Denver, the difference between unwanted loitering and highly-desired lingering is the perceived ability to spend money.

Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen was also quoted in the Denverite piece, criticizing recent legislation that moved possession of certain substances to a misdemeanor instead of felony. Pazen believes that using a felony charge is a critical tool for incentivizing people to get treatment or otherwise get access to treatment in the jail once arrested. I feel compelled to emphasize that jails should not be a place where people have to go to access treatment. And 50 years of a war on drugs leading to mass incarceration and escalated public health issues should be proof enough to rebuke Pazen’s draconian approach.

Around 70 people gathered on March 31, 2020, at the outdoor Greek Theatre in Denver’s Civic Center Park to discuss issues and concerns related to how city officials are addressing the growing affordable housing and homelessness crisis in the city. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

The folks who need support instead of criminalization are referenced in the Denverite article and in other platforms and criticized as being “service-resistant” and reluctant to trust the alternative mental health or substance use support that’s offered by the city. But why would they trust these services? A recent investigation by COLab and published in the Denver Post revealed damning allegations against the 17 largest mental health providers in the state, including Mental Health Center of Denver, which provides the clinician side of Denver’s STAR program as well as the co-responders that accompany police. Among the findings of the investigation were claims that the service providers don’t have the services they’re funded to provide, they’re turning people away from services, especially folks that have been justice-involved, and long waits to get into programs despite tens of millions of dollars the agencies are holding in reserves that could otherwise fund staff.

Also, it was revealed that these centers are misusing taxpayer dollars by charging bloated reimbursements from Medicaid compared to smaller independent providers. The city would have the public believe that people in Union Station and on the street can easily access these services as well as nonexistent shelter beds and thus deserve the level of criminalization and punishment that the city implements.

In Denver, we’ve become a city that hates its poor. Instead of a city of opportunity and enjoyment, we’ve become a city of orange fences and ugly rocks erected to keep unhoused folks from setting up tents as survival. We’ve become a city where one must spend money to access basic resources like a public restroom and a warm place to sit down. These issues are complicated and nuanced, but don’t deserve the sensationalization and stigmatization by people in the best position to make changes.

This holiday season is a sobering opportunity to recognize how disposable and dehumanizing Denver treats its most vulnerable.

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Vinnie Cervantes
Vinnie Cervantes

Vinnie Cervantes is organizing director for the Denver Alliance for Street Health Response.

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