DENVER (AP) — The temperature rose recently as members of Denver’s Street Enforcement Team spoke to two men living in tents and under umbrellas near a junkyard south of the Auraria campus.
The team, known as SET, had been here before and were looking for a woman who said she wanted to come back and help her connect with housing services but she wasn’t home.
Instead, they met a man who said he wanted help, that he was tired of living like this. He just didn’t trust that the member of the Denver Police Department’s homelessness team that the SET members called for him wouldn’t let him go on warrants, despite assurances from street team members that the officer would just take him away.
“If you need help, we can help,” said Scott Lawson, an SET supervisor.
The Street Enforcement Team is the city’s latest attempt to enforce its controversial camping ban, which makes it illegal for people to sleep on city streets, parks and sidewalks. For years, service providers, people with homelessness and advocates have said Denver’s camping ban does nothing to help homeless people and instead penalizes them for not having a home.
The goal of the Street Enforcement Team is to deter police from enforcing the ban on camping and a limited number of other minor municipal infractions, and free officers to work on higher-level crimes, said Jeff Holliday, the Department’s deputy director public safety who oversees the program.
Team members can devote more time to each stop and can talk and build relationships with the people they interact with. The team covers the entire city, and some calls can take three or four hours, Lawson said.
Critics of the Street Enforcement Team said it didn’t matter that its members weren’t cops – they still had the same powers to ensnare anyone in the criminal justice system. They “still target people who want to survive in the public eye,” said Terese Howard of Housekeys Action Network Denver. SET workers also have less oversight than police, Howard said, and don’t carry body cameras.
“It doesn’t really replace law enforcement, it augments it,” said Vinnie Cervantes of the Denver Alliance for Street Health Response.
— “It’s a complicated conversation”
The Street Enforcement Team has not issued a speeding ticket since it began work in September. That’s largely because the city council didn’t want team members quoting people until they received their uniforms, which have been on backorder since the fall, Holliday said. The team is not involved in camp searches.
“We want to make sure there is no mix-up,” he said. “This conversation is a hot spot for a lot of people and we want to make sure there is no confusion when a SET person is engaging with someone and we get to a point where we will put out a quote that they are very clear about identifiable for what they are, and we do not confuse this with residents taking on that role.”
The team has had success getting people to do their bidding to move on voluntarily, Lawson said. Members have contacted people in 2,465 tents and RVs and helped 335 people connect to resources. The team only had to call in the Denver Police Department for backup in one situation, when a team member was assaulted.
Holliday has listened to all the criticism of the show. SET workers have been protested by people who are against the camping ban and the team’s work.
“It’s a complicated conversation,” he said. “The fact is, illegal camping is clearly not supported by residents of the city and county of Denver. And they expect the city to enforce that.”
Holliday is also trying to respond to the daily complaints about camps from people and some neighborhood groups. The number of complaints has increased significantly over the past year, the department’s data shows. The tone of the calls has also changed.
But Holliday acknowledged that tickets don’t solve a person’s problems and that the threat of a ticket — or a ticket itself — won’t motivate some people.
“You hear this from people, ‘You can write me 100 tickets, write them now. I don’t care, I’m not moving, I’m staying right here,'” said Holliday.
SET employees will not issue tickets until the person they are speaking to has received a verbal warning, a written warning and a referral to the services. If at any point someone accepts service or signals interest, the threat of a ticket will be dropped.
“Because a quote in and of itself will not fix the underlying situation,” he said.
A ticket for illegal camping carries a maximum sentence of 60 days in prison, although people convicted of the crime could receive a suspended sentence, a diversion or credit for time already served, said Jacqlin Davis, spokeswoman for the Denver Attorney’s Office City. There is no fine associated with this particular citation, she said.
However, some people are motivated by the threat of a trespassing or camping ticket and relocate or talk about the services available to them, Holliday said.
“That’s ridiculous,” Howard said. “(A ticket) brings people back, not forward.”
The ticket starts out as a ticket, but almost always becomes a no-show warrant if the person misses their court date, Howard said. That warrant eventually becomes an arrest, which means time in jail. While the person is in prison, there is a good chance that their belongings will be stolen or vandalized. Then they get out and start over, but this time with an arrest on their record that can make it difficult for them to access shelter.
The Street Enforcement Team works alongside the Early Intervention Team, which tries to help the homeless living in camps. The Early Invention Team began in the Department of Safety and the Street Enforcement Team was created when the Early Intervention Team moved to the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment.
The city has earmarked $977,894 for SET in the Department of Public Safety’s 2022 budget, along with $206,800 from another program vehicle fund. The department used approximately $200,000 in vacancy savings to fund the program in 2021.
Howard, who was homeless, said the money would be better spent housing people, creating regular garbage collection services for camps, or even further expanding the city’s STAR program, which sends behavioral health professionals on calls instead of police.
“There are countless very important life-saving things that could happen,” she said.
– “In progress”
Street Enforcement Team members are not licensed clinicians or social workers. The job requires a high school diploma and “one year of compliance, enforcement, security, public relations, customer service, or similar experience,” according to a job posting. Holliday said the #1 skill he looks for in candidates is the ability to build relationships and a strong sense of empathy. The city is hiring six more employees for the team, Holliday said.
The current five members of the team spend around eight hours a day on the road. They know many of the people they contact. In their cars — unmarked city vehicles — they store duct tape, garbage bags, cleaning wipes, clothes and socks.
When the officer recently arrived to take the man, who lived near the junkyard, to the Behavioral Health Solutions Center, the man began to have concerns. He felt rushed, he said, and worried about leaving his bike frame behind. After 15 minutes of chatting with the SET members, he agreed to get in the car and put his bike frame in the trunk.
The team members were relieved. The man had made suicidal remarks, and if he hadn’t agreed to go to the Solutions Center, they would have called the STAR van or other mental health professionals.
At another camp between the railway and Lipan Street, the team were looking for a man with serious health problems to ensure he made it to his doctor’s appointments. He wasn’t home when they knocked on his plywood cabin, but they were speaking to a woman who lived in a trailer on vacant private property. They had spoken to her before, and Lawson told her she had to get the trailer off the property by 3 p.m. She agreed, all she had to do was bring her friend over in a truck.
The camp has been there for months, Lawson said, with a rotating group of residents. They had established relationships with some of the people and hope they can help some of them.
“It’s still a work in progress,” Lawson said.