Denver Passes ‘No Freezing Sweeps’ Bill, Potential Mayor Veto Looms

Denver, CO — During Monday evening’s Denver City Council meeting, a narrow majority of council members voted to approve a measure to prevent forced removals of unhoused residents from their outdoor encampments in 32 degrees Fahrenheit or below. Because Denver does not guarantee temporary indoor shelter during inclement weather conditions, and also does not assure the safety of people’s property by not sweeping or removing belongings that are left outside, advocates are glad the bill passed, but are worried about the mayor’s potential veto.

Update — 2/2/24 at 4:05 p.m. MST: Mayor Mike Johnston officially vetoed the City Council’s vote in approval of the “No Freezing Sweeps” bill: “Though well-intentioned, this legislation would restrict the city’s ability to do this life-saving work for approximately four months of the year. That is the reason I will exercise my authority as Mayor under § 3.3.5(G) of the Charter and veto this piece of legislation.”

Unicorn Riot reached out to Councilwoman Shontel M. Lewis (D8), one of the bill’s cosponsors, and she said that “asking people to move in the cold can exasperate existing conditions while increasing the risk of frost bite and hypothermia.”

“Medical experts, including physicians, and those with lived experience have spoken to the importance of resourcing those living unsheltered in dangerous weather in-place.”

Councilwoman Shontel M. Lewis (D8)

Even with the veto, Councilwoman Lewis is already interested in reshaping the bill to be a piece of legislation that everyone “can agree to pass.”

Housekeys Action Network Denver released a statement Friday evening about the mayor’s veto. The local advocacy group is calling for a rally outside the Denver City and County Building on Saturday at 11 a.m. MST.

“Through this act he has sentenced houseless people of Denver to more sickness, suffering, loss of limbs, and potential death. He has made it clear to the people of Denver that he cares about keeping downtown areas clear of visible houseless people and does not care if that comes at the expense of houseless people’s livelihoods, limbs or lives.”

Housekeys Action Network Denver

“We have watched and witnessed and been through freezing sweeps for years now. As individuals, and as an organization [Housekeys Action Network Denver] and as community, we have felt the effects of freezing sweeps, and those effects are vast.”

Terese Howard, Housekeys Action Network Denver

Unicorn Riot spoke with Terese Howard of local advocacy group Housekeys Action Network Denver after the City Council vote. She shared how the immediate effects of someone having to get out of their tent in the freezing cold and pack up all their belongings and move “is extremely damaging to folks’ health.”

“People get sick, they get frostbite, they lose limbs,” she added. Aside from the instant chain reactions, Howard mentioned how many people who live outside are at risk of losing their property and winter gear if they choose to go indoors. When going into either mass congregate shelters or non-congregate hotel rooms, people can only bring a limited number of items with them, which means most of their property is left outside. As a result, some people choose not to go indoors at all to make sure their gear is safe.

The “No Freezing Sweeps” bill, or City Council Bill 23-1960, is “a really modest bill,” according to at-large councilwoman Sarah Parady, one of its cosponsors. “What it says is, let’s pause the removal of a shelter that someone is living in at times when it’s freezing outside — 32 degrees or below — under the three forms of authority that this city has most commonly used to do that.”

Those “three forms of authority” are three sections in the city’s Revised Municipal Code which justify sweeps, including Sec. 38-86.2., which is the Unauthorized Camping Ordinance passed in 2012 be then-Mayor Michael Hancock.

Denver’s current Mayor Mike Johnston sent an email to the City Council on December 19, 2023, voicing his opposition to the bill because of “several operational concerns.” One of the concerns Johnston named in his email was that he believes “the ordinance language limits our ability to bring people indoors when conditions are dire.”

Howard explained to Unicorn Riot that his notion is “factually wrong.”

“One point is that the encampment ‘decommissionings,’ where they go through and close a camp and offer everybody a hotel or a tiny home, that those couldn’t happen under this ordinance. That is wrong, that’s factually wrong. They can happen under this ordinance, the thing that can’t happen under this ordinance is people can’t be forced to move who aren’t getting into that.”

Terese Howard

Throughout the final discussion on the bill, council members shared their differing thoughts on it and asked questions. Councilwoman Diana Campbell (D4) shared how even after hearing from “individuals and research about the effect of freezing weather on people,” she doesn’t believe the bill helps “address and achieve many of the protections that are most desired.”

One of the people the council heard from in the previous weeks was Dr. Josh Barocas, who is a general internal medicine and infectious disease doctor and associate professor at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.

He did a presentation in front of City Council on November 22, 2023 entitled “Cold Weather Injury Among People Experiencing Homelessness” to encourage the consistent openings of warming centers and overflow shelters in the city, to suggest changes to its current policies, and to highlight the exorbitant amount of taxpayer money spent on medical treatment of “preventable” cold weather-related injuries. (Watch Dr. Barocas’ full presentation here.)

During his presentation, Dr. Barocas spoke about the effects of involuntary displacements, or sweeps, in general. “We know that moving people, depending on how it occurs, people are less likely to take with them things like sleeping bags, clothing, etc., oftentimes this is what’s left behind and trashed.”

“We do know that belongings are left behind and that can exacerbate cold weather injuries.”

Dr. Josh Barocas

Dr. Barocas also noted that “most Colorado cities and counties are out of step with scientific evidence, including Denver,” when citing the city’s policy on cold weather sheltering.

The city’s policy uses a temperature threshold of 20°F for one of the criteria to determine whether or not to open overflow overnight shelters and daytime warming centers. Dr. Barocas criticized the policy: “There is no scientifically valid evidence that I have found supporting these temperature thresholds.” He added that on previous presentation slides, he “pointed to 40°F and 32°F when injuries occur.”

One of his slides noted how someone can become hypothermic from extended exposure to cold temperatures, typically around or slightly above 40°F. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also mention that hypothermia “can occur even at cool temperatures (above 40°F) if a person becomes chilled from rain, sweat, or submersion in cold water.”

“We do know that intuitively, tents, even makeshift tents, provide a little bit of a wind barrier, tents provide some shelter from snow, rain and other elements, again what that does is it keeps people not wet, it keeps the sort of ambient temperature inside, even the makeshift structure, a little bit safer than being exposed to the windchill and the wet conditions.”

Dr. Josh Barocas

As the Denver policy stands now, there are no overflow options available overnight unless the current shelter system is at capacity, and at least one of the following criteria is met:

  • A wind chill advisory, watch, or warning is issued by the National Weather Service
  • There is a forecasted overnight low temperature of 20°F or below
  • Two inches or more of snow is forecasted for Denver

For daytime warming centers to open, at least one of the above criteria need to be met.

In an op-ed published in Westword in November 2023, three medical professionals co-wrote a critique of Denver’s plans for protecting unhoused residents during winter weather conditions and suggested the city make better use of daytime and overnight warming shelters.

The opinion piece mentioned a policy in New York City called “Code Blue” which is “instituted when the temperature drops to 32°F or below, including wind-chill, between 4 p.m. and 8 a.m.” No one seeking temporary indoor shelter is denied during a Code Blue, and all drop-in centers are open 24-hours per day.

“Although not a permanent solution, warming shelters that could remain open for the duration of the winter offer our unhoused neighbors a fighting chance of surviving Colorado’s harsh winter.”

Samantha Nall, Yjuliana Tin and Dr. Erin Bredenberg

With less than nine council members approving the bill on Monday, Mayor Mike Johnston has the ability to veto it until the end of Saturday.

The cosponsors and advocates of this bill say that if the mayor decides to veto it, the trend of dire and potentially deadly situations for people would continue. Councilwoman Shontel M. Lewis (D8) is one of the cosponsors of the bill, and she reminded her colleagues what sweeps are and how freezing temperatures can exacerbate their effects.

“So when we are talking about sweeps, and we are talking about the folks that are living in encampments, it’s things that are being destroyed — it’s tents, it’s bedding, it’s food, it’s cooking equipment, it’s clothing, it’s shoes, it’s other items that people need to survive.

And oftentimes those things are destroyed, or thrown away, or removed, and what the research has shown us is that when folks are having to move in those freezing cold temperatures, it just places them more at risk to a number of things, but more specifically, to potentially their graves.”

Councilwoman Shontel M. Lewis (D8)

Lewis concluded: “There’s kindness and humanity in delaying a relocation a few days until the temperature is not life-threatening, right? Like it’s simply a pause.”

Check out our coverage from a massive sweep of Migrants in Denver on January 3, 2024.

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