Denver Mayor Mike Johnston breeds confusion about homeless sweeps, camping ban

Mayor Mike Johnston’s race to reverse the trend of homelessness in Denver, and provide housing for 1,000 people living on the city’s streets before the end of the year, has created confusion about his administration’s policy around ordering cleanups — or sweeps — of homeless encampments.

Johnston assures there is no pause on homeless sweeps in the city — only that his policy is fundamentally different than his predecessor, Mayor Michael Hancock’s. Johnston says he only wants to sweep a large encampment if there is housing to offer to all the people living there — with some key exceptions.

“That’s the fundamental difference, linking people to housing units,” Johnston said this week.

It’s unclear if that means Johnston will delay sweeps until a significant number of new housing units are constructed or acquired or how long that is expected to take. No large encampment cleanups occurred during the mayor’s first week in office and none are scheduled for this week.

Still, Johnson says his administration will enforce the camping ban, which was supported by more than 82% of Denver voters in the 2019 election. When encampments disrupt the public right of way, infringe on private property rights or are deemed a threat to public health and safety, the city will still intervene and perform cleanups, according to the mayor.

After hearing mixed messages about the status of the sweeps, some homelessness advocates and Denver property owners are left scratching their heads.

“I think the mayor’s confused too,” said Terese Howard, an organizer with Housekeys Action Network Denver, a group of current or formerly unhoused people that have demanded housing for all people in the city. “I think that he’s playing things by ear and changing his plans off the cuff.”

Mixed messaging from the start

Confusion about Johnston’s position on sweeps began just days after the newly sworn mayor declared homelessness and an emergency in the city and publicly announced his target to offer housing to 1,000 people before the end of 2023.

As first reported by news partner Denver7, a city representative told attendees at a community meeting in central Denver’s police district 6 on Thursday that the city was placing a hold on large encampment cleanups while continuing to enforce the city’s urban camping ban.

In the aftermath of that meeting and an outcry from some area residents, the Johnston administration walked back what that representative said, telling Denver7 the city was not pausing cleanups but rather was re-assessing encampment response.

Johnston, only a little more than a week into his tenure, sought to clarify things further during a press conference in the mayor’s office Tuesday.

Asked how his administration’s approach to removing encampments would compare to Hancock’s, Johnston said it would be “very different.” Mainly, it would not involve sweeping encampments just for the sake of moving folks off a block with nowhere else to go except the city’s existing congregate care shelter system or another illegal campsite.

“When you’re not offering those folks someplace to go in the form of housing all they can do is take their stuff and move to the next block. The difference here is we are waiting for us to bring housing units on. When housing units are available, then we would come to people in encampments and say we now have housing units to move you to, let us help you move to those units,” Johnston said.

Johnston and administration officials are using the term “decommissioning” to describe the approach. The idea is that once the residents of an encampment are offered housing, those people will be moved with their belongings into a more stable environment that makes it so there is never a need for a new encampment to pop up to replace it.

Decommissioning is a term borrowed from Houston. The Texas city has been perhaps the most successful in the country in dealing with homelessness. Employing a housing-first approach, the city has seen homelessness in its borders decrease by 63% since 2011.

According to point-in-time count data released this week, Denver saw the number of unhoused people in its borders rise 21.4% from January 2022 to January 2023 (a spike that is smaller than that of the one seen in the seven-county metro areas as a whole) while unsheltered street homelessness rose 8.3%. There were 1,423 people counted as living on the city’s streets on January 30, according to the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative.

Decommissioning will take time because housing units and available land have to be made ready even with an emergency order in place meant to speed up that process. Johnston noted Tuesday that there were no large encampments sweeps performed during his first week in office and there were none scheduled for this week to his knowledge — a slowdown from the closing months of the Hancock administration — but emphasized that he hasn’t ordered that they be stopped entirely.

“We will only do them in the cases where we need to do public health and safety, right away enforcement or private property infringement,” he said.

Howard noted that type of criteria is very broad and the Hancock administration often invoked public health and safety as a rationale for performing sweeps. She has questions about what constitutes a right-of-way violation, too. Will officials sweep any tent off any sidewalk or only when the entire sidewalk is blocked?

“There is definitely great concern that he would (authorize sweeps) regardless really of the nature of the camp and what other remedies are being tried there,” Howard said of Johnston’s position.

How the message is being received

On the opposite end of the spectrum from the Housekeys Action Network Denver, is Citizens for a Safe and Clean Denver, a group of Denver residents of business owners that supports sweeping all encampments and wants to see the city use a heavier hand when it comes to forcing unhoused people into addiction and mental health treatment.

Despite administration officials repeatedly emphasizing the cleanups are still on the table as a camping ban enforcement tool, Safe and Clean co-founder Craig Arfsten on Tuesday said “I am under the impression that a moratorium is still in place for large encampment cleanups,” referencing the community meeting covered by Denver7.

Arfsten and other members of his group contend that encampments are unsafe for the people living in them and for neighborhood residents who pass by them. Allowing them to exist amounts to “catering to these unhoused individuals that account for a small fraction of society at the expense of the larger community while they are afforded special treatment when the rest of neighborhoods are not.”

But homeless service providers for years have said that sweeping encampments does nothing to help people get off the street. It only makes homelessness resolution more difficult by moving people around when advocates are trying to stay in touch with them and connect them with housing vouchers and other services. A recent model put together by a Denver doctor indicated that sweeps could lead to an up to 25% increase in deaths in the unhoused community over a 10-year period.

Johnston held a community open house in the Curtis Park neighborhood Tuesday night, a part of the city that has borne the brunt of homelessness over the years because of its concentration of service providers there. In talks with Denver police Chief Ron Thomas, Johnson told the crowd that he learned that an estimated 17 unhoused people have died on the city’s streets just since he was elected on June 6. Homelessness is a moral crisis in Denver, the mayor said.

Some of the attendees at the meeting emphasized the need to protect property rights and pushed the mayor to be more clear on his position around sweeps.

“Are you going to or are you not going to enforce the camping ban which was voted upon?” one attendee asked. “There has been a lot of talk about that today and I think that’s what brought a lot of people including myself to this meeting.”

Johnston reiterated the criteria he shared in the mayor’s office hours earlier.

“Our top priority in this interim (period) is getting people prepared to go into housing. That is our focus,” he said. “That being said, we will continue when there are camps that are either in the public right of way, that pose public health or safety risks (or) when they are on private property, we will continue to engage and enforce and clean up in those contexts.”

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