Police in Denver, Colorado, were criticised after a video of them confiscating blankets from homeless people was widely shared on social media this month. The city of Denver has in place a controversial “urban camping ban”, which forbids unauthorized camping on public property, and the local police force are obligated to enforce city “sweeps” of homeless people infringing the ordinance.

The measure, which was passed in 2012, does not criminalise homelessness. Rather, it makes it illegal to use tents, shelters, sleeping bags and other survival gear in the parts of the city where camping is unauthorised. The ban directly targets homeless people, and while it permits them to sleep and stay outside, they are not allowed to do so with a sleeping bag or a mattress. This year has seen Denver authorities conduct a more concerted crackdown on homeless people, with local news site Westword estimating in May that enforcement of the camping ban in just March and April of this year had increased by nearly 500 percent compared to enforcement over the previous 45 months.

Homelessness is a long-standing problem in the city of Denver. Photo credit: Pj Damico

“Camping you do for fun — this you do to survive”

Jerry Burton, who has been homeless for three years and can be seen in the video, told FRANCE 24, “This isn’t camping. Camping you do for fun — this you do to survive to the next day.”

Kayvan S.T. Khalatbari is a homeless advocate and lives in Denver. He filmed the police taking blankets from a group of homeless people, including Burton, who were camping outside the Denver City and Council building on the night of November 29. The group had deliberately set up their camp outside the council building as a protest, after being moved along from where they were previously staying.

The video taken by Kayvan S.T. Khalatbari and
posted on his Facebook page. It garnered over 587,000 views.

"The shelters are full"

There are three main encampments that have existed downtown. Normally, when police go and sweep them, they clean it up, take the belongings, move the people along and then they let the homeless people come back. They say it is a tactic to encourage them to go in the shelters, even though the shelters are full.

But recently, instead of letting people go back to their spots, they posted police there. Suddenly there were a few hundred people dispersed around the city, further from the services they needed to access. These communities were broken up. These homeless folks got fed up with it and moved in front of the services building to protest.

The homeless people can go and collect their belongings but they’re usually put in storage facilities far away – so are they going to walk for miles, or skip meals to get an Uber? And often when they’re there they don’t have ID to pick up their belongings.

In the wake of the video’s publication on social media, the Colorado branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sent a public letter to the Mayor of Denver Michael Hancock, citing the “cruelty” of the city’s position on homelessness and urging authorities to repeal the ban and end police sweeps.

Homeless people outside on Christmas Day. Photo credit: Pj Damico.

The official statement put out by the Denver Police Department said that those depicted in the video were illegally staying outside of the City and Council building after repeated warnings, and officers had collected the blankets “as evidence of the violations”.

The statement the Denver police department published on their Facebook page.

“There are a million reasons why people can’t go in shelters”

Khalatbari explained what happened on the night he took the video.

I knew that they were camping down here and I knew that there would be aggressive enforcement, so we just had our cameras out the whole time. I think the cops were more polite and more considerate of the gear they were taking because of the cameras on them.

The process of the urban camping ban is a police officer going to an encampment and asking people to move on with a verbal warning, and they check to see if there is a reason to arrest the person on sight.

They are supposed to come by with workers from mental health services and have these co-responders present, but they weren’t there that night.

“Many police officers don’t agree with this”

If you don’t move they come back and give you a written warning, and if you don’t move again they give you a citation. If you still don’t move or resist in some fashion, they will arrest you. There are many police officers that we speak with on a daily basis that don’t agree with this, but they want to keep their jobs.

They say that after being moved on, people can go into the shelters, but there are not enough beds for the houseless community here in Denver. Not only that, but there are a million reasons why people can’t go in these spots: they are extremely unsanitary, they are noisy, a couple can’t go in together… Often families choose to stay on the streets so they can stay together. People who have mental health problems may be unwilling to go into a space that is not private and not equipped to deal with them. People who are transgender have trouble finding space in shelters. We don’t have services that are considerate of the people, and have practices that actively harm the people.

Most of shelters are run by non-profits that get funding from the city; it’s unfortunate that a lot of people that work there understand their deficiencies but they’re afraid to speak out because they’re afraid of losing their funding from the city.

A group of homeless people filed a class-action lawsuit against the City of Denver in August for the sweeps, which they say violate their constitutional rights. The case is currently awaiting a decision by a district judge on class certification.

Mayor Michael Hancock responded to the criticism the viral video generated on December 10 by ordering Denver police to stop taking belongings that homeless people need to keep warm when enforcing the urban camping ordinance, up to the end of April 2017.

Another photo posted on Facebook on December 25 by Pj Damico.


Article written with
Catherine Bennett

Catherine Bennett , Anglophone Journalist