Sweeps of Denver homeless camps run counter to COVID-19 and pose health risks

By Jakob Rodgers, Kaiser Health News

Melody Lewis lives as a nomad in the heart of downtown Denver.

Sticking her head out of her green tent on a recent day in June, the 57-year-old pointed to a few blocks from where city crews picked up her mid-sidewalk tent earlier this spring and replaced it. with landscaped rocks, fences, and signs warning intruders to stay away.

Lewis then moved just a quarter of a mile to a new cracked sidewalk, with new neighbors and potentially feared by homeless advocates, new sources of exposure to the coronavirus.

“Where else are we going to go?” Lewis asked. “What else are we going to do?”

Several US cities are rejecting the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by continuing to sweep homeless camps, at the risk of further spread of the virus at a time when officials from health try to take advantage of the pandemic.

Such struggles involving COVID-19 highlight the nation’s current problem with housing. And they show the challenge public health officials face: Controlling the spread of the coronavirus also risks increasing the spread of other infectious diseases, such as hepatitis A, that thrive amid sidewalks littered with trash and dregs that can be find in some camps.

In Denver, Lewis and hundreds of others were displaced in late April and early May from large, long-block camps, as part of what city officials say is an ongoing effort to periodically clean the streets of the city ​​and keep infectious diseases low. Most homeless campers moved their belongings just a few blocks, where their tents now cover more than a quarter of a mile of sidewalks.

An hour south in Colorado Springs, the police department said it continues to follow CDC guidelines to prevent COVID-19 among the city’s homeless population, but also that it has continued to apply camp bans at certain times. on public property, issuing fines to homeless people. who are camping if they refuse to move. Those in the camps have said that an excavator cleared at least one site.

And in St. Louis, the city health department ordered the removal of the camps near City Hall, sparking a protest by homeless advocates.

In total, at least a dozen cities in recent months have continued to withdraw from these camps, which runs counter to CDC guidelines amid the pandemic, according to the National Center for Poverty and Homeless Law. .

As some communities continue to reopen, and downtown businesses again welcome employees and customers, some homeless advocates fear that such sweeps will only worsen.

“There is no strategy,” said Jacob Wessley, director of outreach and engagement for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. “That is our concern: when they sweep this area, where are they [those without homes] you’re going?

In Denver, one of those cleanups in early May dumped 9,500 pounds of trash and more than 50 hypodermic needles, according to Nancy Kuhn, a spokeswoman for the city’s transportation and infrastructure department.

“Denver has a responsibility to address the unsafe, unhealthy and unhealthy conditions that affect our community,” Kuhn said in an email.

Some cities said the rate of such sweeps has slowed dramatically during the pandemic.

Seattle officials conducted four of these sweeps from mid-March to early June, each due to “extreme circumstances,” said Kevin Mundt, a spokesman for the Seattle department of human services. That compares to 303 of those camping retreats in the last three months of 2019.

Honolulu created a dedicated area for people to camp and “quarantine” for approximately two weeks before moving to shelters, in case they had COVID-19. But some homeless campers who didn’t move dismantled their camps, causing them to scatter throughout the community.

The goal was to limit the spread of the virus and at the same time encourage campers to move indoors, said Marc Alexander, executive director of the city’s Housing Office.

Still, many homeless advocates say the CDC’s direction is clear, and that those efforts do not go unnoticed. If no individual housing units are available, according to the CDC, homeless campers should be allowed to remain in place during the pandemic. Tents must be at least 12 feet away, and camps for more than 10 people must have hand washing stations and hand sanitizer.

“Cleaning camps can scatter people throughout the community and sever connections with service providers,” notes the CDC guide. “This increases the potential for the spread of infectious diseases.”

Jakob Rodgers, Kaiser Health News

David Scott loads supplies at his store near 22nd Street in downtown Denver. He is not concerned about the sweeping of homeless camps because Denver officials told him he could return once the sidewalks are cleaned. “As long as they keep it where they’re cleaning us, not sweeping, it’s fine,” says Scott.

The disease has already infected some people who lack permanent housing. In Colorado, for example, at least 483 homeless people have tested positive for COVID-19, state officials reported June 14. Almost 80% lived in Denver.

Infection rates in the camps, however, are unclear. According to the Colorado Coalition for Homeless People, none of the 50 homeless campers in downtown Denver who accepted the coronavirus tests in early June were positive. But a different survey a month earlier indicated that nearly a quarter of the 52 people examined at a nearby homeless service center were infected with the virus, despite showing no symptoms.

In downtown Denver’s camps, dozens of tents are gathered together, often less than a foot away along sidewalks. Hardly anyone wears masks, and many in the store community said the virus is low on their list of concerns.

Several handwashing stations accompany portable toilets in the area, each provided by a local advocacy group. But they don’t always have water.

For some homeless campers, the situation is preferable to staying in a shelter.

Avoiding those narrow confines and the accompanying disease risk is “common sense,” said Erin Lorraine, 19, who has been homeless from time to time for seven years. A sweep brought her closer to the South Platte River on the west side of downtown.

“These are our houses,” said Lorraine. “We are not hurting anyone.”

Not all homeless campers consider Denver cleanups to be so dire. Many said Denver officials told them they could return after city teams sprayed the sidewalk.

“As long as they keep it where they’re cleaning us, not sweeping, it’s fine,” said David Scott, 53.

But some of those displaced by previous sweeps say trust has been broken.

Melody Lewis was away from her tent during a recent cleanup and returned to discover that city crews had confiscated many of her belongings, including at least one tent, a bicycle, and some shoes. She refused to go to a shelter, in part because of the threat of illness. As Lewis recounts her story, an old sign hanging from a lamppost a few feet away is a reminder of a previous cleanup of the camp.

“We try to ignore it,” Lewis said of such warnings. “Our things and our minds are never safe.”

To limit the spread of the coronavirus, some nonprofits and cities, including St. Louis and other sweeping locations, have gotten creative, opening isolation shelters for people experiencing COVID symptoms and helping some people particularly in risk of moving into paid motel rooms.

Recent sweeps have also renewed a conversation in Denver about creating sanctioned camp sites, areas where people can pitch tents and live in socially distant communities with the blessing of a city.

Elsewhere, these regulated camps provide stability for the homeless, while increasing the likelihood that social workers will be able to find their clients when housing is available, said Tom Luehrs, executive director of the St. Francis Center, an organization of services for homeless people in Denver.

San Francisco has already temporarily created some such camps, with a total capacity of approximately 200 people.