Move Along to Where? Sweeps Illustrate Inhumane Treatment of Homeless and Vulnerable in Colorado

Denver's recent "sweeps" of people experiencing homelessness are a sad reminder of how inhumanely many Colorado cities treat those among us who already face challenging circumstances. The criminalization of homelessness never rests, and people who are homeless almost never get any peaceful rest as a result. Unhoused persons in Denver and other communities in Colorado are routinely arrested for minor offenses, or told by police to "move along," even in the middle of the night, often multiple times. The question that is never answered is, "Move along to where?" If not onto private property, not on sidewalks or in parks or pretty much anywhere on public property, then where exactly is a person without a home supposed to go?

There are shelters, of course, but in almost no Colorado communities are they sufficient for the number of people without homes, especially in cold weather. No doubt many shelter managers do the best they can with the resources they have, but shelters are often crowded and unpleasant places. There is little to no privacy, and there may not be room or adequate storage for personal possessions. Some shelters are "dry," so anyone smelling of alcohol or marijuana will be turned away. Other shelters ban certain persons for weeks, months, or permanently, so they don't have that option. Shelters in Colorado Springs have been infested with bedbugs, and cities like Fort Collins routinely claim that their shelters are not full, even as they are turning people away. There are women who don't want to go into the same shelter with men who have sexually abused them. Crowded shelters can be especially difficult for people suffering from an active mental illness. There are all kinds of reasons unhoused persons either have no choice or would rather take their chances and have a little more freedom somewhere outside, if they can just find somewhere to go.

It is not surprising that unhoused persons in Denver have sought to create a small space for themselves in downtown areas near some of the shelters and service providers, but the City of Denver is now aggressively engaging in sweeps of these areas, once again telling people without homes to "move along," without saying "to where." For those who must or who prefer to sleep outdoors, it is outrageously insensitive of city officials to dismiss them as "service-resistant." It is not illegal to be without a home or to sleep outside of a building, but if there is no outdoor location where a person can sleep or rest without being harassed or arrested, then we have effectively criminalized homelessness.

Denver's sweeps treat people who are homeless and their few possessions as little more than trash, something to be swept out of sight so other people can feel more comfortable. Confiscated property is supposed to be inventoried so it can be reclaimed, but that does not appear to happen in practice. There are no records to be found of what happened to anyone's property in Denver's last sweep on a cold, snowy night in December, for example, and the "reclamation center" from this latest set of sweeps appears to be little more than a row of trash cans. Lacking transportation if they have been pushed somewhere else, and always afraid of arrest or harassment, few of those who might have property there dare to show up.

These sweeps and other efforts to drive away unhoused persons are often justified in the name of public safety or public health, but is that really the core concern? If enforcement was more narrowly tailored it might be believable, but Denver and other communities often use broad and vague ordinances in an attempt to hide or drive away anyone who is unhoused. Already, Aurora is concerned that people who are homeless in Denver will be pushed into their community. Municipalities around Colorado are competing to pass the most hostile laws to unhoused persons, or to enforce vague laws in the broadest possible way. Boulder makes extensive use of its camping ban, defining even a small blanket as illegal shelter. Colorado Springs has made it a crime to sit in downtown areas. Have a car? Many communities won't let you sleep there, either. Need some food or spare change? Many communities want to make it illegal to ask. An adult with a home has no legal worries drinking a can of beer, but the same thing can land a person without a home in jail. Unhoused persons are targeted by ordinances against vagrancy, trespassing, loitering, or curfew violations and any number of other laws criminalizing their mere presence. Colorado jails are full of people who are homeless, at great cost to taxpayers, rarely for serious crimes. The real safety and health issues are for unhoused persons themselves, their already difficult lives made worse by criminal records and constant harassment.

Denver officials seem proud of their aggressive "sweeps", but they ought to feel ashamed. Unless there are truly good alternatives for the people they are sweeping away, unless they can point to adequate places where people can go, it is little more than cruelty. The relief that some people may feel driving through the "cleaned up" areas is only anguish to people without homes. It creates the appearance of solving a problem while only making real problems worse. It may feel uncomfortable to see people experiencing homelessness in our communities, but maybe that's a discomfort we need to feel, until the day that we face up to the underlying causes of homelessness and seek solutions that actually help the lives and respect the civil liberties of our unhoused neighbors.