'We get moved out of everywhere:' homeless sweep starts process over again

After homeless camp removal, the unhoused are left scared, lonely

David Gilbert
dgilbert@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 9/18/20

Misty Butterfield couldn't find her backpack. “It's green,” Butterfield said, her voice shaking, as she scanned the landscape beside the South Platte River, where her camp sat just hours before. …

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'We get moved out of everywhere:' homeless sweep starts process over again

After homeless camp removal, the unhoused are left scared, lonely

Posted

Misty Butterfield couldn't find her backpack.

“It's green,” Butterfield said, her voice shaking, as she scanned the landscape beside the South Platte River, where her camp sat just hours before. “Everything I had was in it. Clothes, a bag of rice — but also a lot of sentimental things.”

Things like family photos, from before Butterfield wound up living on the streets. Poetry she and her sister wrote. Drawings done by her mom, who died in 2014.

Butterfield was one of numerous residents of a sprawling homeless camp that stretched along East South Platte River Drive between Dartmouth and Harvard avenues. Composed of dozens of tents, RVs and campers, the camp was sandwiched into a narrow stretch of grass between the South Platte River and the barbed wire-topped fence of a sewage treatment plant.

On the morning of Sept. 15, Englewood and Denver police blocked off the street at both ends of the camp, making way for an armada of trucks, trailers and garbage trucks.

Over the next several hours, staff from the Denver Fire Department, as well as the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment and the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure, dismantled the camp.

'Losing everything'

By early afternoon, a handful of stragglers remained. Butterfield was one of several who told Colorado Community Media that despite promises from Denver city staff to store their belongings for later retrieval, it was clear many items had been thrown out.

None said they had any idea where they would sleep that night.

“It's just inhumane,” Butterfield said through tears as a garbage truck rumbled away. “If everyone, if white-collar people had to go through losing everything, maybe they wouldn't keep doing this to us.”

Many of those who had been staying in the camp said they knew the sweep was inevitable, especially after the Aug. 25 knife slaying of Joe Hix, who had been living in the camp. Englewood Police have yet to announce any arrests in the slaying that occurred just south of the camp.

In an email, Englewood Police spokesman Sgt. Tracy Jones said the department mainly provided security for the sweep, and said the action was unrelated to the Hix homicide investigation.

'Wonderful people'

Greg Pixley, a captain with the Denver Fire Department, said the sweep was heartbreaking but necessary.

“These are wonderful people,” Pixley said as he walked through the remains of the camp. “You know what they did when we showed up this morning? They offered us breakfast.”

Pixley said recent inspections of the camp had found 91 gallons of gasoline — to power numerous small generators and the still-running vehicles in the camp — in a variety of containers, often stored in close proximity to propane tanks used for cookstoves. Tents were too close together, exacerbating the fire hazard. Health officials found problems with garbage and human waste.

Crews counted 25 trailers, 50 residents and dozens of tents on the day of the sweep, Pixley said.

“The proximity of all those people, all those tents, all that fuel presented a serious hazard,” Pixley said. “People here are trying their best, but we have to do our best as firefighters.”

Why not provide portable toilets, trash receptacles and other sanitation services to the camp?

"We've tried that in some places, but the problem becomes access," Pixley said. "It becomes difficult to empty the Dumpsters. People stop using the toilets if they get too gross."

Pixley said the sweep was the culmination of weeks of outreach, seeking to connect residents of the camp with resources like numbers for housing agencies, drug and alcohol counseling and assistance signing up for government services before clearing the area.

“It's unfortunate there's not a simple, single fix,” he said. “If people let us know what they need, we do our best to help them.”

Social workers accompanied the cleanup crews on the day of the sweep, making efforts to guide camp residents to assistance.

'Half an hour to clear out'

In practice, camp residents called the outreach efforts sporadic and ineffectual, and said information about the forthcoming sweep was garbled and confusing.

“Last night I heard we had 48 hours, but this morning I wake up and I'm told I have half an hour to clear out,” said an older man who gave his name as Vegas, as he loaded a shopping cart with clothes.

Several others in the camp said they heard shifting timelines for when the sweep would take place. The camp had swollen in size since Colorado Community Media visited in March. Barely inside Denver city limits, the camp sat just two blocks north of a similar camp swept by Englewood authorities in 2019.

“They let everyone stay so long that people began accumulating the necessities of life,” Vegas said. “Cookware. Supplies. People had started to enterprise — doing day labor, painting gigs, hauling scrap.”

Vegas called the sweep chaotic. He said each time he ventured from his camp to speak to representatives of city departments, he would return to find more of his belongings gone.

“These are supposed to be civil servants,” he said. “They're nothing but thieves.”

Where to go?

Farther from the camp, along Santa Fe Drive, Stephanie Wallace said the primary housing advice she was given by aid workers was to call 211, Mile High United Way's hotline.

But, she said, that isn't much help. Local housing authorities are overwhelmed with demand. Many require leaving messages and waiting for a return call, but Wallace doesn't have a phone. Homeless shelters, she said, “can be more dangerous than the streets” for a young woman on her own.

“We try to stay together” in camps, Wallace said. “I felt safe there. But we get moved out of everywhere.”

Even with robust outreach, homeless camp sweeps do little to combat underlying issues, said Mike Sandgren, who heads Change The Trend, a network of agencies and nonprofits seeking to address homelessness in the south metro area.

“Sweeps of homeless camps are an unfortunate symptom of a deeper problem: the lack of housing options for people who find themselves experiencing homelessness,” Sandgren said in an email. “Sweeps are costly to the taxpayer in that they require time and effort from city officials and law enforcement. Worse, they are deeply disruptive to the homeless community and compound the inherent vulnerability within the experience of homelessness. Until we in the Englewood, Littleton, and Sheridan communities secure a reliable array of housing services, we will continue in a difficult cycle of encampment formation and sweeps.”

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