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“I was homeless for four-and-a-half years and a lot of the benches that I used to sleep on, they’re gone,” said Benjamin Dunning, founder of Denver Homeless Out Loud. “There are a whole bunch of layers and techniques to keep people from returning to public space, and fencing is just one of them. They’re trying to keep visible homelessness out of the eyes of certain people.”
Installing new fencing, or other types of architecture affecting homeless people is nothing new. For decades, scholars in many disciplines have stated that handrails on benches, windowsill spikes, and rocks beneath bridges exist to deter those seeking refuge from the rain or a safe place to rest. Fencing is the predominant form of “anti-homeless” architecture in Denver. This strategy of urban design is also known as “hostile” architecture and uses elements of the built environment to purposefully guide or restrict behavior.
Folks like Dunning see the fences as an architectural symbol of the class-based power struggle unfolding in Denver. The elite built the Capitol, Lincoln Park, and the rest of Downtown Denver with a certain intention and aesthetic behind them. With Denver’s continued growth and the structural issues like homelessness that often come with a booming city, the community is using these spaces in a different way.
The theory is, if the government bends to the actions of people using these spaces with their own intentions, it gives those people more power. Rather than assisting those communities, advocates say that those in power work to assert their status, with actions like the city’s increasingly frequent encampment sweeps.
“It prohibits people from existing in that space, but it also prohibits First Amendment speech, and it prohibits documentation of human rights abuses by the community,” said Ana Cornelius, an organizer with DHOL. “It prohibits community members from being able to hold their city accountable, and it’s an irresponsible way to manage people.”
Data analysis from Denverite shows that encampment sweeps, which often include temporary fencing measures, followed by permanent hostile architecture, are growing in number in Capitol Hill and Civic Center Park.
Following the Black Lives Matter protests that began in Denver on May 28, 2020, politicians began implementing stricter anti-houseless measures. On July 24, 2020, Gov. Jared Polis said he welcomed the removal of tents from Lincoln Park, and just two days later, Mayor Michael Hancock announced that homeless encampments in Denver “cannot persist.”
After a year of sweeps, the state government announced plans in March 2021 to install permanent fences around the Capitol building, Capitol Hill and Lincoln Park, claiming it was due to damages caused during protesting. While the state’s plans to fence off the Capitol have come to a standstill due to public outcry, the City of Denver is moving ahead with a plan to temporarily fence off Civic Center Park.
Many community organizations have already kept a close eye on these moves, and DHOL is one of them. They are seeking to improve the public’s understanding of homeless life and advocating for those seeking shelter. Aside from lobbying for bills ensuring housing and sanitation for all Coloradans, DHOL performs street surveys to inform legislation and provide direct care, including water and hygiene products.
DHOL argues that encampment sweeps are neither the cheapest nor most effective solution to growing populations of homeless communities in Denver. According to the group, the city and state choose to endorse the sweep-and-fence method because it is the “easiest” option and places the least responsibility or accountability in the hands of the government.
The sweep-and-fence method became more pronounced in the last year, seen in the silver fencing around Capitol Hill. While Mayor Hancock and Gov. Polis cite the social unrest created by BLM riots as the reason, others say these events presented the opportunity to drive out all “undesired” people from downtown and make fencing permanent.
Denver City Councilmember Candi CdeBaca also argued that the city’s current policies aren’t targeted toward helping people. CdeBaca represents District 9, which has the highest concentration of homelessness and citizens living beneath the poverty line in Denver. She also cites the protests as an ideal opening for leaders to take action, not as a security measure but as a move against the homeless community in the surrounding areas.
“It wasn’t clear who was leading in the destruction of property or what properties would be targeted, or why,” CdeBaca said. “So they took this broad-brush approach to prevent all potential entities from entering those places. We haven’t seen any leadership at the state level around dealing with homelessness.”
CdeBaca believes the state and city governments are not communicating with each other about the issue of fencing and homelessness, nor are they working together to find a long-term solution. She references the sweeps and fencing in Capitol Hill as a short-term solution, as it pushes people out of Capitol Hill, into nearby residential and public areas and effectively makes it a problem for someone else to tackle.
“The camping ban is part of what causes that dispersal throughout the city. The administration stands firmly behind the camping ban, and many council members do as well,” CdeBaca said. “That is obviously exacerbating the issue, but there’s also been a concerted effort to bring more shelters online, which is the least-preferred alternative for unhoused people.”
The city’s new Five-Year Strategic Plan on Housing and Homelessness recognizes the lack of affordable housing as the leading cause of homelessness in the United States. But according to CdeBaca, this plan doesn’t do enough to address the actions of government leaders that are causing and intensifying conflict.
“Everyone is focused on housing and trying to figure out how we create more of it,” the councilmember said. “But I don’t think anyone is trying to repeal the camping ban, which is the mechanism that’s driving homelessness into neighborhoods.”
CdeBaca brought two budget amendments, 20-1256 and 20-1257, for a floor vote during the Nov. 2, 2020 city council meeting. Both amendments would have funded a program to provide Denver citizens rent subsidies—the former would have redistributed funds from the City Attorney’s Office and Denver Police to this program; the latter would have redistributed funds from Denver Police only. CdeBaca is the sole council member who voted for these measures, which would have permanently housed over two-thirds of the people on the streets each night.
According to CdeBaca, the council voted to spend the same amount of money on temporary shelters and suggested designated campsites as a temporary solution to this issue.
“There is a section of the population for which [designated campsites] will work, but for the vast majority of them, it will not,” Cornelius said. “It’s not really looking to meet peoples’ needs. It’s looking to enforce obedience.”
DHOL claims that placing hostile fencing in Capitol Hill doesn’t help the citizens of Denver, but Dunning and Cornelius believe it does help real estate developers and the politicians they donate to. Additionally, they say fencing, hostile architecture and encampment sweeps displace people in need and restrict access to public space for all citizens. Dunning and Cornelius agree that a large portion of the encampment sweeps happen just outside of Mayor Hancock and Gov. Polis’ offices.
“There are lots of people in the city that want to be part of the solution. There is one person, the mayor, who is stopping absolutely everything,” Cornelius said.
Folks like Cornelius, and organizations like DHOL, hold firmly that there must be better solutions available. And while it’s often hard to gauge progress, community leaders are making their voices heard and stepping up to create change. CdeBaca recently advocated for and passed the Right to Counseling Evictions bill, which establishes a right to counsel for tenants facing eviction. Rather than penalizing the homeless, she says that keeping people in their homes is a critical first step in preventing homelessness in the first place.
DHOL also believes it’s possible to reallocate the funds currently used for fencing and sweeps to developing permanent, affordable housing while managing current encampments in a more humane manner. While the solutions may not be easy or clear-cut, those doing the work know they exist, and as a community, advocates and community members alike believe they can work toward a future that takes everyone in the community into consideration, without shying away from the issues at hand.
“It is possible to address issues of density,” Cornelius affirmed. “It is possible to address the issues of garbage and hygiene.”
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