Homeless challenge Denver encampment sweeps in federal court

Homeless people filed a federal lawsuit on Monday seeking to stop Denver from clearing their encampments around the city, saying the operations violate their constitutional rights and also raise the risk of spreading the coronavirus.

The lawsuit names Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and other city officials and police officers as defendants but also Gov. Jared Polis for allegedly encouraging the sweep of an encampment of a park near the state Capitol this summer. It claims that the city has not been giving homeless people enough notice of the sweeps as required under a class action settlement reached last year to avoid having demonstrators show up and disrupt the operations. It also says the city’s approach of pushing people out of encampments violates CDC guidance against removing homeless people when there is no individual housing units available for them.

“Despite this clear warning, Defendants chose to act in direct contravention of public health guidance and to violate the property and due process rights of homeless individuals in a cruel and dangerous manner,” the lawsuit said.

Denver opened two larger shelters — one for men and another for women and transgender people — to allow for social distancing during the pandemic.

However, Andy McNulty, who represents the homeless plaintiffs as well as the advocacy group Denver Homeless Out Loud in the case, said people who stay in homeless shelters are at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19, just as people are in jails.

A settlement reached last year in another case brought by homeless people required the city to give people seven days notice before conducting large-scale cleanups and property removal but did include an exception for emergencies.

A spokesperson for the city attorney’s office, Ryan Luby, said the city has not seen the lawsuit yet but disagrees that it has violated the terms of the settlement.

“The City works very hard to connect people experiencing homelessness with services, but cannot allow unsafe and unsanitary conditions to continue as it puts everyone at risk, including those who are experiencing homelessness,” he said.

A spokesperson for Polis, Conor Cahill, said the office would not comment on pending litigation.

The lawsuit came a day before an expected sweep of an encampment near apartment buildings a few blocks from the state Capitol.

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