Denver homeless encampment to be swept after being the site of a shooting

Josef Steele has a bullet wound in his back, an injury he suffered while shielding his sister from gunfire on Monday inside the tent they shared in the homeless encampment near the corner of East 18th Avenue and Logan Street east of downtown Denver.

“My training saved me and my sister,” said Steele, 28, an Army veteran who has been unhoused on the streets of Denver for the last two years. “It hit me in the back and it felt like a whole lot of force in a really small area. It’s so hard to describe what it feels like. I was more upset that they were shooting at my sister than that I got shot.”

Steele only spent a few hours in a hospital for what ended up being only superficial injuries, he said. On Wednesday morning, he was already packing up his belongings while eating a bowl of cereal served to him in a 7-Eleven Big Gulp cup by a fellow camp resident.

In response to the shooting and other problems, including reports of people menacing others with firearms and drug use observed in the encampment, according to notices posted around the camp, city crews and contractors are scheduled to show up at 7 a.m. Thursday to sweep the area and disperse the unhoused people living there.

The city had originally planned to carry out the sweep at 10 a.m. Wednesday but Mayor Mike Johnston decided to postpone that action, according to spokeswoman Jordan Fuja.

The decision to hold off was made “in an effort to give people living in the encampment additional time to plan their next steps,” Fuja said. “The encampment conditions have become unsafe and the city is working urgently to connect those living in the encampment with supportive services and shelter.”

After arriving Thursday morning, city officials will temporarily store or throw away all tents and personal belongings that are not packed up and moved by the residents by the time the sweep is completed. The area will then be closed to anyone except city employees and contractors until all public health and safety risks there are addressed, per the city’s notice that was taped to several tents in the encampment on Tuesday afternoon.

Homelessness advocates estimate that 50 to 60 people live in the camp which spans parts of 18th Avenue, Logan and Pennsylvania streets.

Steele says the person who fired the bullet that hit him on Monday did not live in the encampment.

Advocates with grassroots group Housekeys Action Network Denver are urging the administration to cancel the sweep outright and provide more resources, including therapists, rather than compounding the trauma by displacing the people who live there.

“Scattering this encampment to nearby blocks will not protect them from violence,” the organization said in a statement. “Residents of apartment complexes are not evicted because someone shoots at the building — neither should encampment residents be swept to nowhere.”

Johnston and his administration have authorized encampment sweeps sparingly since he took office in July.

The new mayor made ending unhoused homelessness in Denver the center stake of his campaign and declared homelessness an emergency in the city on his second day in office. He is dedicating significant city resources to trying to secure housing options for 1,000 people living on the city’s streets before the end of 2023. Part of that effort has included providing trash services and even portable toilets to encampments in efforts to improve conditions there while the administration races to secure housing that Johnston believes will make encampments a thing of the past.

The first sweep the administration carried out came after city officials found a rodent infestation in that encampment. Even then, the city provided seven days’ notice. In this case, city officials argue the risks to public health and safety are too great to wait.

“The City makes decisions about encampments based on specific facts and circumstances. In response to significant public health and safety concerns at 17th and Logan on Monday, August 21, we are proceeding with an emergency closure of this encampment,” Fuja, the mayor’s spokeswoman, said. “All residents of our city deserve to feel safe, and our work today underscores the importance of the work the city is doing to bring people indoors and close encampments.”

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