-- Widely-circulated videos showing Denver police confiscating blankets and tents from the homeless in freezing temperatures are shining a spotlight on the national issue of policing homelessness.
The two videos, posted on Facebook on Nov. 28 and Nov. 29, show police officers taking away survival gear, including blanks and tents, from homeless individuals in Denver and issuing citations for unauthorized camping. The Denver Police Department released a statement Thursday defending its officers and explaining the situation shown in the videos, saying the blankets were collected as “evidence.”
“The situation in the video occurred after individuals chose to illegally camp on the public right-of-way outside of the Denver City and County Building as a means of protest after being cited for unauthorized camping at a separate location. In both cases, officers on scene offered services and shelter to those individuals. After they refused the police officers’ assistance, the individuals were advices that they were violating the law and needed to move,” the Denver Police Department said in the statement. “After several warnings, during an approximately four-hour period outside the Denver City and County Building, three protesters chose to remain and were therefore cited. Officers collected items as evidence of the violations.”
The department’s statement comes just days after Denver mayor Michael Hancock announced that he had directed police to stop taking camping equipment when enforcing the city’s unauthorized camping ordinance. The mayor’s office also insisted that homeless shelters in Denver “absolutely have space open.”
“Urban camping -- especially during cold, wet weather -- is dangerous and we don’t want to see any lives lost on the streets when there are safe, warm places available for people to sleep at night. Every night, we have beds open for people to sleep and every day we have safe places and resources to help people experiencing homelessness,” Hancock said in a statement on Dec. 10. “Every step we take is intended to connect people with safe and warm places and critical supportive services. We never intended to take the belongings that people need to keep warm.”
According to the mayor’s office, the people who were shown in the videos last month are the only individuals who have had blankets or tents taken from them. The city of Denver and its partners have placed 995 homeless people into housing over the past 24 months and police have issued nine citations to seven people when enforcing the urban camping ban over the past two weeks, the mayor’s office said.
The videos shared on social media have triggered outrage from rights groups and advocates calling for an end to the criminalization of homelessness. A day prior to the mayor’s announcement, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Colorado responded to the videos by sending a letter to Hancock and the Denver City Council, urging them to repeal the city’s urban camping ban or, at the very least, suspend it through the winter months and direct police officers to cease confiscating survival gear from the homeless.
“The City of Denver is exhibiting a level of cruelty that should bring deep shame to Mayor Hancock and other city officials,” Nathan Woodliff-Stanley, executive director of ACLU of Colorado, wrote in the letter dated Dec. 9. “Denver’s shelters are simply unable to serve all people in the Denver area experiencing homelessness, even in the short term, much less as a long-term solution. Until real solutions become Denver’s priority, the city’s ongoing policing-first approach to homelessness is a cruel waste of funds, curtailing fundamental constitutional rights, causing deep human suffering, and endangering lives.”
There were 5,728 homeless individuals counted in the greater Denver area on a single night in January 2016, according to a report by the Metropolitan Denver Homeless Initiative. But the issues of homelessness and policing these individuals, particularly during the colder temperatures, isn’t unique to Denver.
In March, attorneys in Los Angeles filed a lawsuit on behalf of four homeless people whose property was allegedly confiscated and destroyed by the city without a warrant. One plaintiff, Judy Coleman, was hospitalized for pneumonia after her tent, blanket and other items to protect her from the elements were confiscated, according to court documents obtained by ABC News. The Los Angeles City Council is now considering a revised ordinance that would allow a homeless person to keep some possessions during an encampment cleanup on the city streets, according to ABC affiliate KABC.
According to a survey of homeless Hawaiian residents conducted in June 2015 by the University of Hawaii-Manoa's Department of Urban Planning, almost 60 percent of homeless individuals reported losing personal identification, 40 percent reported lost tents and 21 percent said they lost medicine during city sweeps of homeless encampments.
Citywide bans on camping have increased 69 percent in the last decade, according to a report released this year by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty that surveyed 187 U.S. cities.
“Laws that criminalize homelessness are expensive, counterproductive, potentially unconstitutional – and just plain wrong,” said Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the law group headquartered Washington, D.C. “Any government that is serious about ending homelessness will focus its energy and resources on housing homeless people, not criminalizing them.”
According to an annual report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 549,928 people were homeless on a single night in 2016, with 32 percent of those living without shelter. The figure is widely deemed to be an underestimation.
Individuals living without shelter are in danger of hypothermia when external temperatures fall below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s a leading cause of injury and death among those experiencing or at risk of homelessness. An estimated 700 people experiencing or at risk of homelessness die from hypothermia each year in the United States, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. Hypothermia happens when a person’s core body temperature drops below 95 degrees Fahrenheit.
“Homeless service providers and governments have the responsibility to protect their homeless citizens through state and citywide winter plans and increased shelter availability,” the National Coalition for the Homeless said in a 2010 report that included interviews from homeless coalitions and shelters nationwide about cold-weather services offered in each area. “Though many of the providers we interviewed had impressive winter services, many others were inadequate in some way. In some cases, this is a challenge that must be met by providers themselves; in others, it is the result of a lack of funding.”
Colorado Coalition for the Homeless spokeswoman Cathy Alderman said the Denver-based organization is "disappointed in the aggressive enforcement actions taken" throughout the city, leaving many members of the homeless community without their belongings and no place to go.
"We agree with the city that no one should be forced to sleep on the streets but simply moving people along is not a solution. The city needs to immediately invest in adequate and appropriate shelter space and services to compassionately help those people experiencing homelessness and find more robust ways to address our affordable housing crisis," Alderman told ABC News. "Housing, not police enforcement, is the only solution to homelessness."