Denver officials still can’t say how much homeless sweeps cost

As Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration continues to break up illegal homeless encampments in Denver — against federal guidance during the pandemic — city officials still can’t say how much each sweep costs.

The lack of financial understanding comes despite more than a year’s worth of questions on the topic from elected officials, reporters, residents, people experiencing homelessness and their advocates. It also comes during a historic financial crisis during which Denver is expected to fall hundreds of millions of dollars short in tax revenue, city employees are subject to unpaid furloughs and residents face drastic service cuts.

Not only are city officials unable to even venture a guess as to how much the sweeps cost, they also have struggled to justify the efficacy of the tactics, which have been called into question by public health experts. While the operations are officially justified as the clearing of public rights of way or the protection of public health and safety, they’re essentially enforcements of the city’s controversial camping ban, which is currently under increased scrutiny in an ongoing lawsuit.

In the past year, city officials have conducted at least 30 encampment sweeps, officially known as large-scale cleanups, mostly in Councilwoman CdeBaca’s downtown district. Each is conducted by city staff as police stand by and requires a contractor to collect hazardous materials and storage in the area.

That waste service for a “mid-size” sweep costs about $1,825, said Nancy Kuhn, spokeswoman for the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure. And more recently city officials have hired a company to set up fencing around each site at a cost of between $3,000 and $5,000 per shot.

Those invoices only represent a fraction of the total cost, however. City officials have not calculated staffing costs for the sweeps, despite inquiries from The Denver Post dating back a year, and frequent, frustrated inquiries from CdeBaca’s office, among others.

A Denver Police Department representative said Wednesday they would only calculate that cost if The Post would pay $300 for the hours of research the task would take. They did not respond when asked why that cost wasn’t something the department already knew.

CdeBaca said her office has counted police officers at the sweeps, kept track of the amount of time they’ve stayed there and conservatively calculated that the department pays about $10,000 per sweep in police salaries alone.

“They don’t want the public to see the wasteful nature of the sweeps,” CdeBaca said. “We’re essentially wasting money that we could be using to solve the problem and they don’t want to show that.”

Staff salary is only one aspect of that total cost as well, CdeBaca said. There is also an opportunity cost to residents facing cut services because those employees and officers handling the sweeps could have spent that time doing other work for the city.

“Homelessness doesn’t lend itself to a traditional cost-benefit analysis,” said Derek Woodbury, spokesman for Denver’s Department of Public Health and Environment. “This is one of the most complex human-condition challenges of our time. Cleanups address multiple issues and they give us a focused opportunity to offer services and shelter.”

But from data collected by the city, it’s clear the sweeps aren’t an effective way to transition people experiencing homelessness into shelters or other forms of housing.

Just recently, city staff began to collect statistics on how much trash, how many needles and flammable but otherwise unspecified products are collected at each sweep. They also track the number of people experiencing homelessness who have “accepted information” on shelters, the city’s two already-full “safe outdoor spaces,” and medical and behavioral health services.

By and large, the information offered is useless, said Andy McNulty, an attorney currently suing the city to stop the sweeps.

“It’s literally just cops walking around saying, ‘Hey do you want a pamphlet on a shelter?’” McNulty said. “And you can’t stay there forever and it’s not a great place to be and it’s way the (expletive) out there away from everything you need to survive.”

People actually placed in housing, motels or shelters after each sweep are few and far between.

For example, after the Nov. 30 sweep at 29th Street and Arkins Court, just four people were placed into housing or shelter while 103 people “accepted” some sort of information, based on that data. A total of 35 people received some type of medical or behavioral health referral.

Many living on Denver’s streets express an unwillingness to stay in congregate shelters for fear of their safety or the theft of their few belongings. Since the pandemic began, many say they fear for their health in those group settings with so many shared facilities. Some public health officials have said it’s far safer for them to camp outside than to live in shelters during the pandemic.

Indeed, illegal encampments can cause a mess and once they reach a certain size a criminal element can follow, leading to legitimate concerns from businesses and neighborhood residents alike.

But without offering additional, viable housing options, federal officials don’t recommend breaking up encampments for fear of exposing people in them and the general public to COVID-19. Instead many have said the city would be better — and more affordably — served by offering trash and restroom facilities at the encampments and by increasing police patrols to keep the order.

The truly effective and likely less costly approach to homelessness, CdeBaca said, would be to invest in more housing options.

“Instead we sweep them to move them a couple blocks away and a week later we sweep that other block and they move back to where they were in the first place,” CdeBaca said. “It’s a giant game of whack-a-mole.”

City officials conducted sweeps on Wednesday and Thursday and have two more scheduled for Jan. 12 and 13.

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