Denver Mayor Mike Johnston visits homeless encampment ahead of sweep he ordered

Denver Mayor Mike Johnston visited a large homeless encampment in the 2200 block of Stout Street on Thursday afternoon, talking with and shaking the hands of people that by Friday morning will be ordered to move along as part of the first sweep authorized under the Johnston administration.

“That’s the first time I’ve ever seen that,” David Lanci, one of the people living in the camp, said after Johnston talked to him and moved down the line of the tents and makeshift sun shelters. “It didn’t feel like talking to a mayor. It felt like I was talking to a friend. That is big.”

Johnston earlier this week said that the city did not have hotel beds, tiny homes or any other form of short-term housing available for the people living in the camp. The promise of providing alternatives to the streets or the city’s existing congregate care shelter system is a pillar of Johnston’s approach to enforcing the city’s camping ban and, he says, a departure from the policies of former Mayor Michael Hancock.

But in this case, the cleanup effort couldn’t wait, according to the city. A rat infestation has been identified in the camp, something Johnston said presented a health and safety risk to the people living there and the surrounding neighborhood. Health and safety concerns, along with encampments that are blocking public rights of way or trespassing on private property, are factors that the administration has identified for triggering sweeps even without housing to offer.

“This is the challenge of our current scenario, which is we don’t yet have the units up and ready for people to move to,” Johnston said at a news conference Wednesday. “This is why (we have) the framework that we’ve built is because (sweeps) as a solution doesn’t work — because it just means you’re chasing people off one block and they end up on another block.”

Johnston’s visit, something he has vowed to do every time he orders a sweep, is part of what has been cast as a kinder, gentler approach to an enforcement action that homelessness advocates have long said is traumatizing and counterproductive for stabilizing people’s lives and getting them into housing.

As part of another change aimed at making the process less painful for people living on the street, Friday’s cleanup is scheduled to begin after 7 a.m. Under Hancock, sweeps often would begin before dawn with police officers and other city employees rousing people from their sleep to gather their meager possessions and move on.

Johnston personally explained the reason for the sweep to Lanci and his friend Wilfredo Gomez. Lanci told the mayor he would do all he could to help make the cleanup process go smoothly.

When Johnston asked if there was anything the two men needed, Gomez responded he needed help getting an ID so he could get a job. A representative from one of the homeless service organizations accompanying the mayor told Gomez he would help him with that.

The mayor also asked if the two men would accept offers to live in tiny homes once the city can provide those as options. They indicated they would.

“That is so real,” Gomez said of Johnston spending time talking with him. He’s been on the streets of Denver for three years. He hopes to get a hotel room for Friday night if possible once the sweep is done.

Lanci has been homeless for the past two months. He previously completed and worked for an addiction treatment program in Florida. He hopes the skills he learned there can help others on the streets. For Friday, his goal is mainly to help Gomez pack up his stuff and move on.

“I’m going to do my best to be his right hand,” Lanci said.

Johnston also spent time speaking with encampment resident David Sjoberg on Thursday. Sjoberg emphasized the need for bathrooms at encampments, comparing not having them to living in a Third World country. Johnston highlighted his administration’s efforts to improve the state of encampments, including launching trash collection services for two of them last week.

Sjoberg and his wife have a lead on an apartment where they would be given six months to get stabilized but he couldn’t remember which service provider had offered them that off the top of his head on Thursday afternoon.

The 35-year-old’s health has deteriorated recently because his medications were stolen and he missed a scheduled treatment for his Crohn’s disease. For now, he’s going to look for another place on the streets after Friday’s sweep.

“I don’t know, man. I literally have to scout it out today,” he said of his next move. “It’s kind of seeing who’s where. I need to be with like-minded folks.”

The Denver Post will have a reporter and photographer at the encampment site Friday morning to report on the scheduled sweep. 

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