Unhoused Residents Find Refuge at Downtown Vigil

Denver, CO – A four-day Race and Homelessness Vigil began early Wednesday morning opposite the Denver City and County Building. It began primarily as a space to educate the local community on how Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) are disproportionately affected by houselessness, but it has organically expanded into a temporary mutual aid hub and safe haven for unhoused people.

Unicorn Riot was on the ground documenting the beginning of the vigil; watch our live coverage below:

“It is about the Indigenous people, it is about Black people, and People of Color not being housed at the rate that of our white counterpart. But I’m not surprised because it has always been that way. Even during the time when my ancestors were set free, they were set free to what? Nothing.” — Jerry Burton, DHOL

The 13th Amendment, passed in December 1865 after the Civil War ended, abolished slavery “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”

At that time, most Southern states passed laws known as the Black Codes, which criminalized and controlled many aspects of Black people’s lives. Some of the statutes made it illegal for Black people to be unemployed and without permanent residence.

For example, Section 2 of the Vagrancy Law under the Mississippi Black codes state (in part):

Be it further enacted, that all freedmen, free Negroes, and mulattoes in this state over the age of eighteen years found on the second Monday in January 1866, or thereafter, with no lawful employment or business, or found unlawfully assembling themselves together either in the day or nighttime, and all white persons so assembling with freedmen, free Negroes, or mulattoes, or usually associating with freedmen, free Negroes, or mulattoes on terms of equality, or living in adultery or fornication with a freedwoman, free Negro, or mulatto, shall be deemed vagrants.”

Reconstruction began in 1866 repealing the Black Codes, however many of the laws including vagrancy statutes remained on the books.

The current laws criminalizing aspects of survival for people experiencing houselessness are based off the Black Codes, such as Denver’s Unauthorized Camping Ordinance.

The camping ordinance, termed the survival ban by housing advocates, makes it illegal to “reside or dwell temporarily in a place, with shelter.”

Therefore, it is illegal for anyone outside to rest or sleep (on public or private property “without express written consent of the property owner”) if the person uses “any form of cover or protection from the elements other than clothing.”

Check-in Table at the Race and Homelessness Vigil Wednesday morning. Banner draped over table says, “We Deserve To Survive.”

According to the Denver 2020 Point in Time (PIT) survey, although only 5.3% of the general population is Black, 23.2% of the houseless population is Black. Similarly, while 0.78% of the general population is Indigenous, 5.5% of the houseless population is Indigenous.

There were 1,752 BIPOC-identifying people counted as houseless in the 2020 PIT survey. According to DHOL, this number is a known undercount.

“To honor everyone, not just those counted, we are tripling this number to have one minute for all those counted and one minute for all those not counted. Furthermore, since spring this year many more BIPOC are newly homeless after losing jobs and housing in the pandemic.” — Denver Homeless Out Loud

Based on the tripling of the BIPOC count, the vigil is intended to last 5,265 minutes, until Saturday evening.

On Wednesday, there were multiple large donation distributions at the vigil, helping to create equity and provide resources to those in need. Donations included garbage bags full of clothing, and boxes full of take-away grocery items and pre-packaged food donated by Denver Food Rescue.

The vigil is providing certain free resources throughout its duration such as masks for those without, a handwashing station, drinking water, homemade meals three times per day, presentations and speakers, arts and crafts, a bookstore, and more.

Around 4 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon, vigil organizers set up 12 tents on the sidewalk as part of their commitment to highlight the experiences of the local unhoused population. They intend to pass out the tents by the end of the vigil to residents who need them.

Denver Police Descend on First Night of Vigil

Around 6 p.m. local time, dozens of Denver police showed up at the vigil and began asking questions about the tents, while also conducting wellness checks with assistance from a clinician. According to eyewitnesses who spoke with our local reporter, police walked down the row of tents shaking each one to see if they were occupied.

Most of the tents were empty, however a few people who needed a safe respite from the cold were making use of the shelter spaces. Police told the people occupying the tents they had 15 minutes to exit their tents and break them down, or they would be cited or arrested. At least one police officer reportedly set a timer of 15 minutes on their watch.

Organizers and vigil attendees told police that the tents were props as part of their lawful peaceful assembly. The police agreed to allow the tents to stay up as long as no one was inside them.

Then organizers decided to question the police about where the 40+ unhoused individuals were supposed to seek warmth and safety other than the city’s shelters. After negotiating, DHOL succeeded in getting the police to agree to provide 40 hotel vouchers for the people who wanted a private, indoor space for the night.

Soon after the negotiation, according to an eyewitness we interviewed, a local live streamer walked up to the police asking to see their badge numbers. The police responded by saying there was a warrant for his arrest and put handcuffs on him. He has since been released.

Below is our live coverage from Wednesday evening moments after the arrest:

The local streamer provides live coverage from protests, and is known in leftist circles. He is also well-known to the police, therefore leading vigil attendees to believe it was a targeted arrest.

DHOL decided that it was best to break down the vigil for the night, and set back up Thursday morning; while some were focused on packing, others had to coordinate with the police in securing hotel rooms.

For five hours, Terese Howard with DHOL spoke on-and-off via phone with District 6 Commander Aaron Sanchez to figure out what hotels would be used.

Most of the hotels that the police ended up agreeing to provide the vouchers for were outside of Denver city limits, which according to Jerry Burton, is a different form of a sweep.

“A sweep can be done in many different forms. It can be done like they normally do, like you’re used to seeing, as far as the police showing up early in the morning about 6 o’clock and fencing it off and telling everyone to leave, or they can say, ‘Alright, we’re going to pay for hotel rooms, but we’re going to put you outside of the city.'”

Burton explained that once the unhoused residents are out in Wheat Ridge or Aurora, it can take days or even longer to get back in downtown Denver. He also mentioned that there was a hotel about one mile from the vigil that had eighteen vacant rooms Wednesday evening, yet the police didn’t choose that location for the vouchers.

“They’re not trying to help. [They] are trying to eradicate Denver of the most vulnerable and the poorest out of [their] city limits.”

Only 15 out of the 40 people who were promised hotel vouchers ended up receiving hotel rooms. The hotels chosen for the vouchers by the police required IDs, which can be hard to acquire while unhoused, and also can be hard to hold onto when sweeps happen so frequently.

The 5,265-minute vigil is demanding the city of Denver stop the sweeps and provide housing for all, while continuing to highlight how houselessness and housing inequality disproportionately affect the BIPOC population.

Stay tuned for our coverage of the vigil from Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.

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