Denver lawyer seeks class action lawsuit against the city for homeless sweeps

Denver-based lawyer Jason Flores-Williams got tired of seeing homeless people in his neighborhood being sent out of the city in droves.

He and Terese Howard, an organizer for Denver Homeless Out Loud, have joined the fight to protect homeless people from what they call unconstitutional “homeless sweeps” throughout the city.

“There are no more rooms in the shelter and the shelters are not an option for many, many reasons beyond the fact that they are actually full,” Howard said. “We’ve been pushing away and criminalizing the homeless across Denver and across the nation.”

An ordinance against unauthorized camping passed by the city council in 2012 allows law enforcement officials to remove people they believe to be homeless from city streets in an effort to keep sidewalks clear. Howard said these sweeps result in a loss of personal belongings and sleep deprivation for many of the homeless people impacted.

The complaint filed by Flores-Williams says the city has increased the amount of sweeps after promising to reduce them and continues to unfairly target homeless people by destroying their property without their consent.

“Under the US Constitution you have to have cause to remove and detain people under the fourth amendment, which grants equal protection,” Flores-Williams said. “Everyone has the right to be treated equally.”

The sweeps, also known as raids, have affected more than 5,000 people, Flores-Williams said. In his complaint he said there have been many instances where homeless people have had their personal belongings, including military records and identification thrown away by police after the raids.

The 36-page complaint names nine plaintiffs that were homeless and says they were unfairly targeted by these raids, some of which had “to go so far out from the familiarity of downtown that they end up sleeping in dangerous areas where they have been raped” or killed, Flores-Williams said in his complaint.

Denver Police directed all questions to the City’s Attorney’s Office, but did provide a record of citations given for unauthorized camping spanning from June 2014 to October 2015, which showed a total of 17 citations written at four different locations.

Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock’s spokeswoman Jenna Espinoza dismissed the claim that the city was sweeping homeless people off the streets.

“We are simply working to keep areas clean and safe for all residents while also working to understand the challenges faced by those on the streets so that we might connect them to shelter and housing,” she said in a statement.

Espinoza went on to say that the city spends $50 million a year on direct and indirect homeless services and has since connected 995 homeless people to housing in the last 23 months

“In the last several years, the city has increased direct services, including overnight and day shelter service as well as increased access to housing for all people,” she said in her statement. “The city’s practice is to first try and connect people to services and treatment, and if that doesn’t work, people are given notice, usually multiple times, before any enforcement action is taken. These are complex challenges and we strive to be as compassionate as possible while also ensuring safety and public health for all Denver residents.”

A federal judge is reviewing the complaint and is in the process of determining whether it will move forward as a class action lawsuit.

“The outcome we hope will be to stop these unconstitutional inhumane sweeps and for the city to start treating all people with respect and as human beings,” Flores-Williams said. “We’re reaching that point where we’re now starting to organize and fight back.”

Jordan Frias

Jordan Frias is an editorial assistant at Boston Herald and a contributor of Spare Change News. He is vice president of the New England Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and a graduate of Northeastern University's School of Journalism.

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