Denver Police, City Workers Throw Away Belongings Amid Lawsuit

Denver, CO – On July 9 and 12, 2018, Denver Homeless Out Loud (DHOL), an advocacy group for people without housing, published two videos documenting Denver police and city workers seizing people’s belongings and throwing them away; also known as “sweeps.”

These ongoing sweeps continue amid a lawsuit against the city of Denver for repeatedly violating the basic human rights of people without housing. Being “swept” by law enforcement and other city workers means to be approached when sleeping or resting on public property and being told to “move along,” and/or being ticketed, and/or having belongings taken.

Screenshot from a DHOL video of a Denver Public Works Crew throwing away an entire cart full of someone’s belongings during a sweep on July 9, 2018.

Sweeps can happen to unattended belongings as well. If someone goes to the bathroom, or is meeting with a social worker, or getting something to eat, etc., and had to leave their belongings outside temporarily, their property may end up being confiscated by the city.

Shannon Wolf, a Denver resident, spoke with us two years ago when she was living without housing about two times where her belongings were taken. She was listed as a potential plaintiff in the lawsuit against Denver when it was filed on August 25, 2016.

I had a tent up and all my belongings were inside, twice, I walked up to the porter john to go to the bathroom, came back 10 minutes later and my stuff was gone and the rangers or police, one time it was rangers, one time it was police, were driving away with my stuff in the back of their truck. No notice, no nothing telling me how to get it back. Nothing; just gone… If you tow somebody’s car, there has to be a sign up saying where it’s been towed, so if you tow or take my tent, which is my home, my current home, then I should be able to be told where it’s at and how to get it back.” – Shannon Wolf, Denver resident without housing

In the two videos uploaded by DHOL, police and city workers throw away belongings that were outside the Samaritan House, which is a houseless shelter in downtown Denver. We spoke with a coordinator at the Samaritan House about their property storage opportunities for houseless folks and they said that the only belongings you can bring inside to their overnight shelter are “what you can carry.” The coordinator also said that there are no lockers or storage spaces at the Samaritan House; the closest storage spaces are at the Saint Francis Center, which is across the street.

According to the Saint Francis Center website:

SFC provides storage for 550 people, and is available for guests as long as needed, but must be renewed every 30 days. Storage is limited to personal belongings that will fit into a 30-gallon plastic bag. New storage spaces are given out on a first-come, first-served basis Monday-Friday.”

With over 5,300 people without housing in the Denver Metro Area (according to the 2018 point-in-time survey), providing 550 of them large trash bags in which to store some of their belongings can help at most 10% of the unhoused population. The day shelter at the Saint Francis Center only allows shelter guests to bring one bag, and if there are no additional available storage spaces, then people either have to stash them somewhere outside or have someone watch them who is staying outside.

Terese Howard, a member of DHOL, narrates in the video published on July 12:

That’s a police stealing private property, which is a violation of our fourth amendment right, and which is, uh, part of the reason we have a lawsuit. Police are coming through right there and grabbing a person’s bike and walking off with it and throwing it in the trash… There the cop goes with that cart, too. That cop is just pushing away a person’s shopping cart that could have all of their survival gear and it has their tarps; everything.”

Screenshot from a DHOL video of a police officer taking someone’s bike and carrying it to a trash truck during a sweep on July 12, 2018.

Howard goes on to explain how the police are not supposed to be directly involved with taking the belongings during a “sweep”:

That cop put his hand on it himself. That’s not just something we can put on the city workers, that cop himself is taking that property. That cop’s not even supposed to be doing that. They’re supposed to just be watching, they’re supposed to be like guarding, keeping everybody safe. That’s what they say; is that the cops aren’t there to do anything, but to make sure everybody’s safe in the situation, and uh that’s obviously not what’s happening.”

During sweeps it is legal for a Denver police officer to confiscate someone’s property if they are taking the property “as evidence of illegal camping,” as we captured on November 28, 2016:

The class-action lawsuit against Denver is attempting to prove that the city has been violating unhoused people’s Fourth Amendment, Eighth Amendment, and Fourteenth Amendment rights primarily through enforcing the Unauthorized Camping Ordinance (PDF).

According to the lawsuit, the plaintiff class claims:

that the intentional taking and destruction of their personal property violated the Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable searches and seizures. . . that the taking of their property without hearing, reasonable notice or probable cause, constitutes violation of their federal constitutional right to due process pursuant to the Fourteenth Amendment. . . that the outrageous treatment that they have been forced to endure as part of Defendants’ policies, practices and conduct violates the Eighth Amendment ban against cruel and unusual punishment.”

In a press statement, Heather Burke, a spokesperson with Denver Public Works, commented on the two videos published by DHOL:

Denver Public Works crew was conducting their normal cleanup in the vicinity of Lawrence and Park Avenue downtown, when they came across unattended items in a cart in the public right-of-way.”

According to Burke, as the clean-up crew began going through people’s belongings, they noticed items that posed “a health or safety risk,” and therefore they decided to throw everything in the dump truck.

In the video published on July 12 entitled “City Destroys Homeless People’s Bikes and Sleeping Pad,” there are no city workers or police officers looking through the cart full of belongings before it is pushed toward the dump truck.

In the same video, Howard points out that there are no trash cans anywhere near the Lawrence and Park Avenue area:

All these blocks right here where folks sleep outside, not a single trash can, so how on earth do you expect folks to try to throw their trash away?”


Correction (7/19/18): We incorrectly stated that the Saint Francis Center has an overnight shelter, but it is only a day shelter. The correction has been made.

Unicorn Riot will continue to provide updates about issues affecting Denver’s unhoused population, as well as about the class-action lawsuit.

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