Denver authorities commendably moved in this week and took down a homeless campsite near Downtown in the River North Arts District. It’s about time, and not just because it was a crime magnet, public health hazard and overall eyesore amid a reborn residential area and emerging entertainment hub. It’s also because such encampments are a disservice to the people who stay in them as well as to the surrounding community.
Denverites see them here and there around the city center; sometimes they’re small clusters of ad hoc housing — tents, boxes and lean-tos — and sometimes they’re big enough to be de facto campgrounds. They sprout up spontaneously and can last until authorities decide they (and complaining locals) have had enough. The factors that drive the camps’ denizens to take shelter in them — substance abuse? Mental illness? Economic need? Lifestyle choice? — are fodder for a separate debate over the origins of homelessness. Whatever the root causes, we all should be able to agree squatting in squalor on public land does no one any good.
And Denverites are pretty near a consensus on at least that matter. Last year, Denver voters crushed a ballot proposal — 83% to 17% — that would have repealed the city’s eight-year-old ban on “urban camping.” Residents are fed up with what the camps bring to the business districts where they work and the neighborhoods where they live and raise their families.
Consider what authorities uncovered in this week’s action against the encampment at 29th Street and Arkins Court. For starters, it was a recent homicide, among other health and safety hazards, that had prompted the city’s crackdown. When it moved in, the city found some 80 people living in more than 100 tents and makeshift dwellings. According to a summary released by the mayor’s press office, the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment found: “Significant trash accumulation, including rotting food, clothing, mattresses and furniture; rodent infestation; large plastic containers of urine and feces; discarded needles; fire hazards, including generators within tents, as well as gasoline, propane and butane canisters.” All in all, the city hauled away 10 to 15 tons of trash, including 200 hypodermic needles.
There was plenty of advanced notice and referrals to social-service programs and agencies prior to this week’s action. Authorities drew upon City Hall’s extensive resources and infrastructure for countering homelessness in attempts to help find new shelter for the displaced campers and to address their wide-ranging other needs, including for medical and mental health care.
Of course, no such cleanup would have been complete without the usual contingent of activists showing up in an attempt to block the proceedings. Police made four arrests.
The camps prop up pathologies, like alcohol and drug abuse and rampant violence, that all too often afflict the homeless themselves first and foremost. While City Hall’s move toward running its own campsites for the homeless poses problems — the first is slated to open next week — at least, authorities can screen campers and, we hope, maintain some sort of order among them.
A significant segment of the hardcore, chronically homeless routinely refuse the beds that are almost always readily available to them in local shelters. That doesn’t entitle them to “camp” at the rest of society’s expense.