DENVER (AP) — Homeless encampments that have sprung up across the city during the coronavirus pandemic will be cleaned up, Mayor Michael Hancock said Wednesday, calling them a public health threat. He didn’t specify whether the city intended to remove the camps or intensify efforts to sanitize some of them.
“We did allow for certain encampments to occur but again they’ve spiraled and so we have to now use our public health orders that indicate that there are threats there to go in and begin to abate those," Hancock said.
He also said the city has taken a risk by sending public workers to encampments on sidewalks, alleys and vacant lots to monitor and clean up the areas. Workers have discovered discarded needles in public and private landscaping, he said.
Like many major cities, Denver has long struggled to address homelessness. Police sweeps of camps before the pandemic were frequently criticized.
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for addressing encampments state that if “individual housing options are not available, allow people who are living unsheltered or in encampments to remain where they are.”
The guidelines say clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers, increasing the potential for spread of the virus.
“I’m very confident that the CDC would not encourage us to allow the conditions that I’ve seen in some encampments,” said Bob McDonald, executive director of the city's Department of Public Health and Environment.
During the coronavirus pandemic, the city has offered shelter and services for homeless people at the Denver Coliseum and the National Western Center but is looking to add more 24-hour services, the mayor said.
At the two sites, the city offers a combined 1,065 beds and has served more than 180,000 meals, according to Britta Fisher, chief housing officer at the Department of Housing Stability. Fisher said the city has invested in 1,021 units of publicly-financed housing this year and plans to have another 1,066 units next year.
“It is a budget-constrained environment and yet I’ve seen Denver continue to invest in these strategies to help people experiencing homeless and those facing housing instability,” Fisher said.
Hancock said Denver continues to see a downward trend in numbers of new coronavirus cases. The city currently is testing more than 1,100 people daily, including at the Pepsi Center. Dr. Sarah Rowan, public health and infectious disease expert at Denver Health Medical Center, said a partnership with the city has tested another 2,000 people, including those in encampments.
”I feel like this is going to be really a key way that we keep our city from seeing the increases by really bringing testing to people who can’t make it to the Pepsi Center, who might not have a primary care provider and who are really disproportionately impacted," Rowan said.
Also Wednesday, Gov. Jared Polis urged residents and summer visitors to wear masks and obey social distancing protocols. Polis and Dr. Rachel Herlihy, the state epidemiologist, said they're closely monitoring local outbreaks in Boulder, Eagle, El Paso and San Miguel counties, among others, as well as a slight increase last week in virus transmission rates.
Herlihy noted that, at 32 years, the median age of those testing positive has steadily declined since the outbreak peaked in April. She said that reflects the state's success in containing outbreaks among older, more vulnerable populations but also shows that younger people, who are often asymptomatic, pose a continuing risk of spread.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death. The vast majority of people recover.
Nieberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.