Denver’s homeless sweeps cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, invoices show

Denver spent more than $400,000 on homeless encampment sweeps last year, invoices and receipts show, though the exact cost remains unclear.

Invoices obtained by The Denver Post through open records requests show the city paid $398,199 to Environmental Hazmat Services, a waste company, which rids encampments of trash and hazardous materials.

But not all of the money has to do with the approximately 30 sweeps in 2020, city spokeswoman Heather Burke said. The company offers several other services to the city and it’s unknown what portion of those invoices were for those services, she said.

The invoices and receipts also show the city paid more than $62,000 to buy or rent fencing, and set it up or tear it down. That fencing has been used more often in recent sweeps to keep protesters back as police clear the encampments.

Denver also has not calculated the hourly costs for city staff and police officers — often, dozens work a single sweep.

Every dollar and every hour of staff time consumed by the sweeps could be put to better use during the pandemic-driven financial crisis, said Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca, an outspoken critic of the sweeps and representative of the district where most of them take place.

Denver’s homeless population is estimated at 4,171 as of January 2020, up from 3,943 the year before, according to the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative’s annual point-in-time counts. Officials within Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration say the controversial sweeps are necessary to keep public rights of way clean and clear, and to prevent ongoing outbreaks of hepatitis A and shigella.

Public health officials say the coronavirus pandemic presents a greater danger than those other diseases and encampments should not be broken up.

Kathleen Van Voorhis, director of housing justice for the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, said the sweeps are a “waste of money.”

“It has never, not once, created change in the homeless population,” she said.

The Interfaith Alliance opened Denver’s first safe outdoor space — a legally operated, fully staffed and regulated homeless encampment — last month. And with another $350,000 to $400,000, it could open another one, Van Voorhis said.

Van Voorhis said the safe outdoor site provided stable housing for six people during the holidays, and the ability to connect guests to services is a proven strategy to reduce homelessness rather than sweep it from one street corner to another.

The demand is so great for another site that the open beds could be filled immediately, she said, and cost-effective.

“It breaks down to really $42 a day per person,” she said. “Which is cheaper than a night in an emergency shelter.”

Plus, she said, the site on the property of First Baptist Church in Capitol Hill has yet to receive a negative call, text or email from neighbors.

Hancock’s administration has proved reluctant to embrace the safe outdoor sites and defends the sweeps, saying the encampments pose a public health risk.

Without creating new spaces for people experiencing homelessness to go, the sweeps only temporarily clean up an area and force residents to set up camp somewhere else, Van Voorhis said. Then, the problem repeats.

  • Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post

    City crews use heavy equipment to put debris cleared from an encampment into dump trucks during a sweep near the corner of S Santa Fe Dr. and W Wesley Ave. in Denver on Jan. 13, 2021.

  • Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post

    A man, left, assembles belongings during a sweep of a large encampment near the corner of S Santa Fe Dr. and W Wesley Ave in Denver on Jan. 13, 2021.

  • Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post

    People assemble their belongings during a sweep of a large tent encampment near the corner of S Santa Fe Dr. and W Wesley Ave in Denver on Jan. 13, 2021.


The repetition is second nature for Charlsy Wingo, who for a few months lived near in south Denver the corner of South Santa Fe Drive and West Wesley Avenue in relative seclusion with a few others in the back of her truck-bed camper. Several other people joined her there, living out of their vehicles.

But last Wednesday, city officials fenced off the area and began clearing them out in the fourth sweep of 2021. Wingo said the only warning she and others received came a few days earlier from an official notice printed on a sheet of paper and taped to a nearby pole.

Wingo raced against the clock to raise the cash needed for a tow before city officials impounded her truck, which no longer runs. She smiled at her small dog, Queen, but shook her head as she discussed what few options she has left.

“It may not have been the best house, but it was a house. It kept us out of the snow,” Wingo said. “Now, we’re screwed. We don’t have any place to go. We’re homeless again.”

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