Aug 7, 2023 - News

Denver's unhoused population says they want permanent solutions after mayor's first sweep

Angel Browne, a volunteer at the advocacy organization Housekeys Action Network Denver, during a downtown homeless encampment sweep Friday. Photo: Esteban L. Hernandez/Axios

Armando Ortega didn't know where he would sleep Friday night. Originally from Houston, he's worked as a kitchen manager at chain restaurants, but he's been homeless for six months.

Driving the news: Roughly 50 people, including Ortega, were removed by Denver city officials earlier that day from downtown encampments. The sweep included 22nd Street, California Street, Stout Street and Park Avenue.

  • He told us he has also camped on California Street.

State of play: Friday's sweep was the first under Mayor Mike Johnston's administration.

Why it matters: Last week, Johnston said sweeps don't work as a solution to homelessness because "it just means you're chasing people off one block and they end up on another."

Details: Health concerns connected to a rat infestation and waste buildup prompted the sweep, according to the city's public health department.

  • Advocates from the Housekeys Action Network Denver say boulders placed along the street, a common deterrent to keep people from camping, created a habitat for rodents.
City crews place temporary fencing around a homeless encampment on Stout Street in downtown Denver during Friday's sweep. Photo: Esteban L. Hernandez/Axios

What they're saying: "This feels really calm, orderly — but it doesn't mean that people still aren't going to be struggling to find another place to pitch a tent," at-large Council member Sarah Parady told us Friday at the site.

The big picture: People experiencing homelessness told us they want to live in permanent housing, not tents on street corners.

  • Ortega would be open to a stable sheltering option, like a safe outdoor camping site, over a traditional overnight shelter, where he says his stuff often gets stolen.
  • Angel Browne, who is homeless and volunteers for Housekeys, sees housing as a human right and supports policies that would give renters more power to avoid losing their housing.

Zoom in: While the number of people experiencing homelessness is increasing in Denver, the latest point-in-time count indicates a spike in people like Ortega, who are homeless for the first time.

  • He said the constant moving makes it hard to find time for things that will help him secure permanent housing, like getting an ID (his was stolen) or applying for a job.

The other side: Chase Loggins, who only spent one night at the encampment, was packing up his gear at the site to move to Vail, taking a bus. He tells us he's been homeless for the past few months.

  • He secured a job as a sous chef, earning $30 an hour, and was in the process of getting employee housing there.

What's next: Johnston plans to visit all encampments slated for a sweep, his spokesperson Jordan Fuja confirmed to Axios. He visited the Stout Street site on Thursday.

  • Fuja and Cole Chandler, the mayor's senior adviser for homelessness, were also there.
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