U.S. District Court of CO Certifies One of the Largest Houseless Class-Actions in U.S. History

Denver, CO – On Thursday, April 27, 2017, the United States District Court of Colorado, Judge William J. Martinez, certified class-action status for the lawsuit filed on August 25, 2016 on behalf of unhoused residents in Denver whose rights have been repeatedly violated during the wide-spread and constant “Denver Homeless Sweeps.”

Because of this certification, thousands of people without housing in Denver whose belongings have been taken without due process of law, and who are constantly told to “move along” during the day and night, will be able to pursue justice.

The chosen plaintiffs are Raymond Lyall, Garry Anderson, Thomas Peterson, Fredrick Jackson, Brian Cooks, and William Pepper.

According to Jason Flores-Williams, the attorney for the class-action, without the certification, the lawsuit would have been limited to the original plaintiffs; focusing on specific incidents between them and the city. Now, each incident is seen as representative of what the city has done to other unhoused persons.

Raymond Lyall and Jerry Roderick Burton have spoken out many times about the mistreatment they have faced. They have both been “swept” consistently by law enforcement and other city workers, which means they have been approached when sleeping or resting on public property and told to “move along,” or they would be ticketed.

It means that there’s just nowhere that you can go anymore. You go to one block, and [the police] follow you over there. Then you go three blocks down, and they follow you down there. So it’s like they’re telling us that we have to walk around and around and there’s nowhere we can stop.” – Jerry Roderick Burton

These sweeps are enforced due to the Unauthorized Camping Ordinance, or camping ban, which essentially criminalizes people without housing:

It shall be unlawful for any person to camp upon any private [or public] property without the express written consent of the property owner or the owner’s agent, and only in such locations where camping may be conducted in accordance with any other applicable city law.

‘Camp’ means to reside or dwell temporarily in a place, with shelter. The term ‘shelter’ includes, without limitation, any tent, tarpaulin, lean-to, sleeping bag, bedroll, blankets, or any form of cover or protection from the elements other than clothing. The term ‘reside or dwell’ includes, without limitation, conducting such activities as eating, sleeping, or the storage of personal possessions.”

For the general public to understand more clearly what it’s like to be unhoused in Denver, Denver Homeless Out Loud (DHOL), released a video highlighting the experiences of Debbie Brady, a transgender woman and military veteran who was living on the streets for over a year starting in 2009:

Earlier this month on Wednesday, April 5, 2017, after a day and a half of testimony, the jury for Denver’s first camping ban trial found the three co-defendants guilty of “illegal camping.” 

Two weeks after these three were convicted for essentially surviving, the Homeless Bill of Rights, which was heard for the third time in the Colorado Legislature (HB 17-1314), was voted down in the State House Local Government Committee by a 5-8 vote. If the bill was passed, it would have effectively repealed the camping ban.

Below are our livestream videos from the Homeless Bill of Rights Hearing:

In a press release about the class certification of the lawsuit, DHOL states:

The City of Denver, under the direction of Mayor Hancock, continues these Sweeps in effort to push homeless people out of sight into further corners and hidden places to pave the way for gentrification. Homeless people continue to have their property taken, leaving them with nothing to stay warm, and without critical paperwork and personal items. This is a big day for all people experiencing homelessness in Denver, as the Federal Courts now recognize the wide-spread targeting of homeless persons. . . It is one of the largest class actions of poor and dispossessed persons in US history.”

Flores-Williams adds:

By granting class certification, the federal court recognized that the City of Denver has a policy focused on homeless persons, a policy that many believe to be an immoral, unjust and unconstitutional war on the poor.”

Shannon Wolf, a Denver resident without housing, spoke with us on August 18, 2016, after the first meeting with Flores-Williams to gather potential plaintiffs. She talked about her experiences living on the streets in Denver and why this lawsuit is important to her:

Terese Howard, of DHOL, also spoke with us on August 18, 2016:

It’s time to respect people on the streets the same way you would respect anybody living in a house or anybody with lots of money. I think the city is going to push back in whatever ways they possibly can, but there is a good precedent growing around the country for these types of cases winning. There was a recent case in Fresno, California where a lawsuit for sweeps in Fresno was brought forth and they won and actually got millions of dollars from the city, so I think the tides are turning potentially in a good way for lawsuits.”

There was another precedent set in Fresno, California in 2014, when the 36 plaintiffs won against the city and received a large settlement. The lawsuit was filed after the city bulldozed people’s encampments in the downtown area in 2011.

Part of the Denver lawsuit, which can be read in full here, states:

For more than two years, Defendants have engaged in an ongoing and continuing policy and practice of raids on those Denver residents who are unsheltered, in which Defendants take and destroy the personal property of Plaintiffs and Plaintiff Class without concern for due process or the right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures. Defendants have conducted their policies in a manner that can only be described as cruel.”

Unicorn Riot will continue coverage of the class-action lawsuit against Denver, and other issues affecting Denver’s unhoused population.

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Unicorn Riot coverage on Denver’s housing crisis and unhoused community:
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