Temperatures shot upward on Thursday as members of Denver’s Street Enforcement Team spoke with two people living in tents and under patio umbrellas near a scrap yard south of the Aurea campus.
The team, known as SET, was here before and was looking for a woman who said she wanted them to come back and help connect with housing services, but she was not at home .
Instead, they met a man who said he wanted help, that he was tired of living like this. She simply didn’t trust that a member of the Denver Police Department’s homeless outreach team called for by SET members wouldn’t drive her for a warrant, despite assurances from road team members that the officer would simply give her a ride. .
“If you want help, we can help,” said SET supervisor Scott Lawson.
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, experience service providers, homelessness and advocates have said that Denver’s camp ban does nothing to help the homeless and instead punishes them for not being home.
Jeff Holiday, deputy director of the Department of Public Safety, said the goal of the Street Enforcement Team is to divert police from enforcing the camping ban and other minor municipal violations and free officers to work on high-level crimes. who oversees the program.
Team members can devote more time to each stage and interact with the people they are interacting with and build relationships with. The team covers the entire city and some calls can last as long as three or four hours, Lawson said.
Critics of the Street Enforcement Team noted that it doesn’t matter if its members are not police – they still have the same powers to implicate someone in the criminal legal system. They’re still “publicly targeting people just to make a living,” said Teresi Howard with Housekeys Action Network Denver. Howard said, SET employees have less surveillance than the police, and they Do not wear body cameras.
“It’s not really replacing law enforcement, it’s expanding them,” said Vinnie Cervantes of the Denver Alliance for Street Health Response.
“It’s a complicated conversation”
Since starting work in September, the Street Enforcement team has not offered any tickets. That’s mostly because the city council didn’t want team members to refer to people until they received their uniforms, which have been backlogged since the fall, Holiday said. The team is not involved in the camping sweep.
“We want to make sure there is no confusion,” he said. “This conversation is a hot point for a lot of people and we want to make sure there’s no confusion when a set person is connecting with someone and we get to the point where we’re going to issue a quote. That they are very clearly identifiable for who they are and we do not confuse this with the residents who are in this role.”
Lawson said the team has had success following its orders to get people to proceed voluntarily. Members interacted with people in 2,465 tents and RVs and helped connect 335 people with resources. The team only had to call Denver police as a backup in case a member of the team was assaulted.
Holiday has heard all the criticism of the program. People opposing the camping ban and team work have opposed SET workers.
“It’s a complicated conversation,” he said. “The fact of the matter is that unauthorized camping is very clearly not supported by the city and Denver County residents. And they expect the city to enforce it.”
Holiday is also trying to be responsive to daily complaints about the camps from people and certain neighborhood groups. The department’s data shows that there has been a substantial increase in the number of complaints in the last one year. The tone of the call has also changed.
But Holiday acknowledged that tickets do not solve a person’s problems and that the threat of a ticket – or the ticket itself – will not motivate some people.
“They hear this from people, ‘You can write me 100 tickets, write them now. I don’t care, I’m not moving, I’m staying here,'” Holiday said.
SET workers will not give tickets prior to receiving a verbal warning, written warning and a referral to services. If a person accepts the Services at any time or indicates that they may be interested, the ticket will be at risk.
“Because a quote by itself is not going to fix the underlying situation,” he said.
Jacqueline Davis, a spokeswoman for the Denver City Attorney’s Office, said tickets for unauthorized camping carry a maximum sentence of 60 days in prison, although those convicted of the crime may receive a probationary sentence, diversion or credit. There is no monetary penalty attached to that particular citation, he added.
Holiday said some people are motivated by encroachment or ticket threats for unauthorized camping, and will talk or talk about the services available to them.
“It’s ridiculous,” Howard said. “(A ticket) makes people not forward but backward.”
The ticket starts out as a ticket, but almost always turns into failure to present a warrant when the person misses their court date, Howard said. That warrant eventually turns into an arrest, which means time in prison. While the person is in jail, there is a good chance that their belongings will be stolen or trashed. Then they exit and start again, but this time with an arrest on their record that may hinder their access to housing.
The Street Enforcement Team works side by side with the Early Intervention Team, trying to help those who are experiencing homelessness who are living in the camp. The Early Invention Team began in the Department of Safety and the Street Enforcement Team was created as the Early Intervention Team was transferred to the Denver Department of Public Health and the Environment.
The city budgeted $977,894 for SET in the Department of Public Safety’s 2022 budget and $206,800 from a separate fund for program vehicles. The department used approximately $200,000 in vacancy savings to fund the program in 2021.
Howard, who has been left homeless, said the money would be better spent, building regular garbage services for the camps or even further expanding the city’s STAR program, which made it practical to call the police instead. Health sends doctors.
“Countless very important life-saving things can happen,” she said.
“work in progress”
Street Enforcement Team members are not licensed physicians or social workers. The job requires a high school diploma and “one year of experience in regulation compliance, enforcement, security, community outreach, customer service or similar,” according to the job listing. 1 skill he looks for in candidates is the ability to build relationships and a strong sense of empathy, Holiday said. Holiday said the city is hiring six more people for the team.
Currently the five team members spend about eight hours a day on the road. They know many of the people they contact. In their cars – unmarked city vehicles – they keep duct tape, garbage bags, cleaning wipes, clothes and socks.
When officials arrived on Thursday to take the person living near the junk yard to the Behavioral Health Solution Center, other thoughts started coming to the person’s mind. He was feeling rushed, he said, and worried about leaving the frame of his bike behind. After a 15-minute conversation with the members of SET, he agreed to get into the car, keeping the frame of his bike in the trunk.
The team members were relieved. The man was making suicidal remarks and if he did not agree to go to the resolution center, they would have called Star Van or other mental health professionals.
At another camp built between the railroad and Lippen Street, the team looked for a man with serious health problems to make sure he attended his medical appointments. When they knocked on his plywood shack, he was not at home, but they talked to a woman living in a trailer on vacant private property. They had spoken to her before and Lawson told her that she needed to get the trailer off the property by 3 p.m. She agreed, all she needed to do was get her friend with a truck.
The camp had been there for months, Lawson said, with a roaming group of residents. He had made connections with some people and he hopes that he will be able to help some of them.
“It’s a work in progress,” Lawson said.