//Protesters congregate outside the Wellington Webb Municipal Building on Aug. 6 in an effort to bring awareness to the eviction crisis facing Denver in the face of COVID-19. Photo by Esteban Fernandez | Este.Fdez20B@gmail.com
Dozens of masked activists cloistered in front of the Wellington Webb Municipal Building on Aug. 6 as the sun beat down in the late morning, linking arms together, blocking the main entrance.
The protest targeted landlords who were entering the Webb Building to file eviction notices on their tenants. On July 2nd, over 80 advocacy organizations, counties, and elected officials—including four city council members, six state representatives and five state senators—signed a letter to Governor Polis listing recommendations to ease the burden on renters during the economic turmoil of the current pandemic.
The protest was organized by the Afro Liberation Front as well as the Wall of Moms Denver chapter. The group describes themselves on Twitter as moms and mom-identifying folx who commit themselves to amplify Black voices, protecting first amendment rights and standing against police brutality. The two organizations have committed heavily to activist work around Denver. They were present for several Black Lives Matter protests, as well as other protests around the ICE detention center in Aurora and the homeless encampment sweeps that began at the start of the month.
“We have no intent to place our hands on anyone at all—our goal is to engage in a dialogue with them,” activist Azria said.
She was referring to landlords walking into the Webb building to file eviction notices, which was the reason for the display of civil disobedience outside the municipal building on Thursday.
However, it did not take long for police to arrive and attempt to disperse protesters. The protest began a little before 10 am, and it wasn’t even noon before officers in SWAT fatigues arrived and armored vehicles circled the area with two horse-mounted officers in tow.
The officers demanded the protestors move in three minutes, according to Denver Post reporter Sam Tabachnik.
“The organizers [of Afro Liberation Front] are really, really good at de-escalation and were able to talk the cops into letting us stay if we just moved from the door,” Azria said. “We saw some of those same cops yesterday, so today, since everyone had their phones out filming, they were a lot nicer to us.”
Azria pointed out the use of phones as one possible reason why activists and police were able to reach an agreement without resorting to protest dispersal tactics such as tear gas, pepper balls and arrests that have been frequently used in recent months.
In March, Gov. Jared Polis declared a moratorium on evictions when thousands lost their jobs due to the coronavirus pandemic. Despite pleas from housing advocates for an extension, the governor let the moratorium expire on June 14. However, he did add a provision that requires landlords to give tenants 30 days’ notice rather than the usual 10 days. Once that window passes, landlords can ask a judge to evict the tenants, which is what a number of landlords entering the Webb building on Thursday intended to do, according to some of the protesters.
Some housing advocates, such as the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project, estimate that more than 300,000 Coloradans could lose their homes because they cannot pay their rent or mortgages after losing their jobs. Colorado’s unemployment rate in June sat at 10.5%. Prior to the pandemic, in February 2020, Colorado’s unemployment rate sat at 2.5%. There were 458 eviction cases filed in Colorado in July, according to the Colorado Apartment Association. However, that number could very soon rise given that the federal unemployment benefits, which added an additional $600 a week to those receiving state unemployment benefits, expired at the end of July.
The severance of unemployment benefits comes at a potentially dangerous time, as the number of reported COVID-19 cases has been increasing steadily since the beginning of June. The rise in cases has the potential to trigger another shutdown. Without the safety net of unemployment benefits and the eviction moratorium, many are concerned about their abilities to remain housed, one protester named Sam said.
“Those tents that were kicked out of [Civic Center Park] could have belonged to any of us,” said Azria. “And it’s just cruel,” chimed in another activist, Kat.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned that people 65 years and older may be at higher risk of becoming severely ill from COVID-19. In recent years, medical researchers have shifted their focus on older adults experiencing homelessness. They have found that this group ages faster than the rest of the population.
Study participants in their 50s are found to experience geriatric conditions, like memory loss, falls and functional impairments, at rates similar to those in their 70s. Therefore, being homeless can put certain individuals at a far higher risk of suffering severe complications, as well as death, due to illness. Additionally, group living conditions such as nursing homes, prisons and homeless encampments and shelters can rapidly become epicenters of outbreaks.
The conditions of homeless encampments limit the ability to properly socially distance, take sanitary precautions and get access to testing, which allows coronavirus to spread rapidly in those communities. It also hampers the efforts made to keep the pandemic under control.
In a post on Facebook, Charles Rozanski from Feeding Denver’s Hungry wrote that if political leaders do not step up and provide immediate aid, millions of families nationwide are at risk of eviction. Many of these newly homeless families do not know how to navigate the “extremely hostile social stratifications that dictate who gets power, and resources, on the street.” Rozanski argued that this has the potential to create a dangerous situation on the streets of Denver and cities across the country.
“Truly, this is a slow motion [sic] national disaster of epic proportions,” Rozanski wrote.
According to protesters, as COVID-19 continues to impact the economy, the fear of eviction is yet another burden weighing on many working-class Americans.