Volunteers from the mutual aid group Headwaters Protectors pick up trash alongside unhoused residents at a homeless encampment in Denver. (Courtesy of Michelle Christiance)
Colorado’s two largest cities are moving in opposite directions when it comes to how their police departments interact with unhoused people on their streets, the authors of a new study on policing and homelessness found.
The study by researchers at Cornell University and Community Solutions, a nonprofit housing advocacy organization, assessed the outsized influence that police departments have on homelessness policymaking in America’s 100 largest cities.
“When we look at this structurally and consider all the different institutions that are designing local responses to homelessness, we find that police are very influential,” Charley Willison, an assistant professor at Cornell’s school of public health, told Newsline in an interview. “In turn, when we examined the role of police in homelessness policy, we found that police responses are overwhelmingly punitive and focus heavily on civil and criminal penalties.”
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The study collected survey responses from mayors and administrators in the country’s 100 largest cities — a list that includes Denver, Colorado Springs and Aurora — to gauge the influence of local police departments on policymaking. It builds upon a previous survey by Community Solutions that found that nearly one-third of those mayors have no staff dedicated to homelessness while another 22% house that staff in their police department.
Overall, it found that 76 of the 100 largest cities formally involve the police in their Homeless Outreach Teams, a specialized team usually composed of both governmental and nongovernmental actors that contacts unhoused folks at encampments. Outside of the raw data, Willison said the survey responses from Denver, Aurora and Colorado Springs suggested that the cities are moving in different directions when it comes to the use of HOTs.
Denver and Aurora, for example, do not have an enforcement requirement for their HOTs, meaning that members of the cities’ HOT teams are not required to cite the unhoused people they interact with. On the other hand, Colorado Springs was one of the 59% of cities that do have enforcement requirements for civil, criminal, and quality-of-life infractions.
Willison said these enforcement policies can have disastrous results for unhoused people. During one encampment sweep in late March, Colorado Springs police officers issued 33 citations, four felony citations, and another 40 misdemeanor citations to people living at an encampment along the Greenway Trail and Fountain Creek, Fox21 reported. Of that total, 14 were arrested while another 18 first-time offenders were given verbal warnings.
Homelessness on the rise
The survey’s release comes at a time when homelessness is on the top of many Coloradans’ minds. More than 10,300 unhoused people call the state home, a roughly 8% increase from 2019, according to federal data. Rates of homelessness have increased by even more in Denver, while Aurora and Colorado Springs have seen increases in the number of veterans experiencing homelessness.
Law enforcement and other state officials often say that these policing measures are necessary to protect public safety. Colorado Springs Mayor Yemi Mobolade, who was inaugurated earlier this month after his historic win over Wayne Williams in May, told Colorado Newsline in an emailed statement that the city’s HOT is a “key component” of its response to homelessness, because they enforce the city’s code in a “compassionate way.”
“During my first 100 days in office, I will be working closely with our public safety departments to research and find opportunities to add additional resources to both the police department’s Homeless Outreach Team and the fire department’s Homeless Outreach Program,” Mobolade said.
In Denver, Mayor-elect Mike Johnston has consistently said that he will take a more compassionate approach to homelessness during his tenure. That approach includes building communities of tiny homes, expanding safe outdoor spaces, and building up to 25,000 affordable homes during his first four years.
However, advocates say Johnston’s support for the urban camping ban, enacted a decade ago at the urging of current Mayor Michael Hancock, could upend the progress that he hopes to see in other city-led responses to homelessness. Terese Howard, a long-time advocate for Denver’s unhoused, told Denverite on June 12 that using “police and shelters to try to hide visible homelessness” has been “utterly traumatizing, utterly destructive on people’s lives.”
Willison added that Denver and Colorado Springs are also moving in opposite directions when it comes to involving police in homeless outreach operations and having a goal of removing encampments.
Denver has largely decentralized its approach to engaging encampments and helping people find services by launching an Early Intervention Team, which focuses on small encampments, and its Street Enforcement Team, a civilian force that enforces the city’s quality-of-life ordinances. However, critics say these efforts have not had their intended effect.
An investigation by the Denver Voice, a newspaper focused on homelessness issues, found that just 5% of people contacted by Denver’s SET actually receive services. SET team members had also been performing work that is outside their scope of authority, like arresting people for outstanding warrants and assisting the Denver Police Department with encampment sweeps, according to the investigation.
A ‘fragmented approach’
Colorado Springs, meanwhile, has a hotline for residents to report illegal activity related to homeless encampments, while also touting an emphasis on connecting unhoused folks with services. Aurora has a similar approach, with their primary focus on removing encampments and connecting people with services, Willison said.
“The fact that these two approaches coexist fuels cycles of promises that do not effectively end homelessness,” Willison said. “This kind of fragmented approach makes it difficult, if not impossible, to actually implement effective strategies.”
Other cities like Pueblo and Fort Collins seem to be following Colorado Springs’s lead by involving police in outreach efforts. Three years ago, Pueblo launched its Homeless Outreach Program in its police department, KRDO reported, although the city has since expanded its efforts to include a Community Commission on Housing and Homelessness.
Similarly, Fort Collins police launched its Homeless Outreach and Proactive Engagement Team in April, according to The Coloradoan. The HOPE team’s goals include “providing individuals with services/resources, promoting safety, and addressing environmental concerns,” according to a Facebook post.
To Willison, these developments show that local governments need to do a better job of rethinking how police fit into their responses to homelessness. Doing so could dramatically reduce the homelessness-to-jail pipeline and reduce negative outcomes for unhoused folks that perpetuate cycles of homelessness, she said.
“At its core, these practices just remove people from areas where they have access to services,” Willison said. “And then downstream, they have the potential to facilitate cycles of homelessness, which just move people further and further away from getting into permanent housing.”
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