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Mayor Johnston not pausing homeless sweeps, despite confusion at community meeting

The confusion arose after a city representative at the meeting said a hold would be placed on large encampment cleanups while continuing camping ban enforcement.
Homeless camp sweep notice
Posted at 3:55 PM, Jul 20, 2023
and last updated 2023-07-20 19:27:00-04

DENVER — A district 6 community meeting on Thursday spawned some confusion among citizens on new Denver mayor Mike Johnston’s next steps to address homelessness in the city.

The confusion arose after a city representative at the meeting said a hold would be placed on large encampment cleanups while continuing camping ban enforcement.

After the meeting, community members voiced concern to Denver7 anchor and Social Equity Reporter Micah Smith.

“The biggest takeaway was the idea of a moratorium on large camp cleanups for an extended period of time,” said Craig Arfsten with Citizens for a Safe and Clean Denver. “It's not healthy for the individuals that are on the street. It's not healthy for businesses that have encampments in front of their business. It's bad for neighbors that have to navigate this and the open drug use and crime in the neighborhood is just a bad situation.”

Parents of kids that attend Denver Public Schools also shared concerns about a pause as their children walk past encampments on the way to class.

“Our kids are going to be walking in and out of school, in the middle of downtown with all of these encampments big and small. And how do you prevent a child like this from not being hurt?” said Janna Steele.

After the two-hour meeting, Denver7 reached out to Johnston’s team for clarification on the new policy and was told there would be no pause on sweeps and that the confusion amounted to a miscommunication.

“The city is not pausing cleanups or enforcement, but we are re-assessing the city’s response to encampment,” said a Johnston spokesperson in an email to Denver7.

Mayor Johnston's administration has been busy in its first week making moves to address what it highlighted as the most important issue during the campaign.

Less than a day on the job, Mayor Johnston, declared a state of emergency for homelessness in the city,which is meant to open more resources for the city, residents and businesses working to combat the issue.

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In his first media interview as mayor earlier this week, Johnston told Denver7 Chief Investigative Reporter Tony Kovaleski his administration would be taking quick steps to address the unhoused population.

"We're going to work hard in the first year to show a real change," he said. "And I think if we're successful we may see it even earlier than that. [...] I think we have some real ambitious plans to get to work on this very quickly so we can bring change quite quickly because that's what people are ready for."

During the campaign, Johnston laid out to Denver7 his vision and overall plan to attack homelessness in the city.

“I've said we are going to be the first big city in America to end chronic homelessness, and I've committed to doing that in my first term,” Johnston said during a February interview with Denver7.

Mayor Johnston not pausing homeless sweeps, despite confusion at community meeting

“I’ve spent the last two years working on this issue. I led the statewide ballot measure on Proposition 123, which was our first statewide ballot to take on housing and homelessness.” Johnston said.

Johnston’s plan included building 20 micro communities and 1,400 additional units for the unhoused in the city. Each micro community would be made up of tiny homes and converted hotels, according to his campaign website, which emphasized moving unsheltered people together into housing to maintain established communities in the encampments.

His plan also included additional mental health, addiction treatment and employment resources for the unhoused.

“We know when we move people, by preserving a sense of community, you're kind of living in an encampment together and bring 30 or 40 of them together to a new micro community that is safe and stable and permanent, you can actually see much better outcomes.” Johnston told Denver7.

Johnston’s team already identified empty parcels of land to relocate tent locations to set up micro communities that include bathrooms, kitchens and other mental health and addiction resources.

March data provided from the Common Sense Institute showed Denver’s homeless population was 4,794 people in 2022 and 3,752 in 2021, which was slightly down from 4,171 people in 2020.

Over the past 5 years, Denver’s unhoused population increased by 44%, according to the Common Sense Institute.

In September 2022, homeless advocates said Denver was using aggressive tactics to sweep camps and claimed the city was in violation of the Lyall settlement, a 2019 legal agreement that requires a 7-day notice before an encampment sweep. The agreement also promised the personal belongings of the unhoused would be stored after a sweep.

Lawyers from Kilmore, Lane, and Newman submitted a letter to the City of Denver that claimed over two dozen sweeps in Denver violated the Lyall settlement. At the time, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock released the following statement:

“Without question we expect that all city employees treat everyone with respect. We are confident that city employees and city contractors do just that. In addition to reminding our teams about the legal parameters of the Lyall settlement, we also consistently reinforce the need to treat our unhoused residents humanely and with dignity”

During this week’s state of emergency announcement, Johnston set a goal of 1,000 unhoused people gaining access to housing by the end of the calendar year.

“This is about how we take courageous steps to start what we know feels like a very intractable challenge,” Johnston said. “The biggest problems we face in a democracy are giving into the notion that somehow we think problems are unsolvable.”

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