Homeless camps that first sprang up on sidewalks near the downtown Samaritan House shelter last summer soon will get an eviction notice.
The city plans to provide advance warning early next week and on Tuesday will begin removing any remaining items left on public sidewalks or other public property, according to a notice obtained by The Denver Post and confirmed by city officials.
If the city doesn't take action, officials say, the area will face "a looming public health and safety emergency."
The city is taking a tougher stance toward the camps with a new multi-agency effort. It will mark the first clearing of downtown camps on this scale in recent memory, an official said, although police have conducted smaller periodic sweeps near the South Platte River and have used a controversial camping ban to move people off the streets.
In recent months, homeless campers have moved around the area near Lawrence Street and Park Avenue West after the city has cleared sidewalks for cleaning — as frequently as five days a week in January.
Despite ongoing attempts since September by city departments and homeless outreach groups to connect people to shelters and other services, the camping has persisted. Some people have resisted to offer shelter beds.
"I know for a lot of these people, it comes down to not wanting to be confined to an enclosed area, and some are just here for the legalized marijuana and can't do that indoors," said Daniel Dishman, a frequent visitor of the Lawrence Street Community Center. "More than that, the minimum wage here is too low, and the cost of living is too high. You have to be able to compromise with the homeless. If you don't want their furniture on the streets, give them somewhere else to put it."
Julie Smith, a city spokeswoman, remains optimistic their efforts have begun to make an impact.
"Together, through this intensive and focused effort, we have helped hundreds of people and supported the community," Smith said in a statement to The Post. "However, the health, safety and welfare of those who continue to live outside on the streets and sidewalks is nearing a crisis. This unsafe, unhealthy, unsanitary and inhumane situation must be addressed."
But the plan sparked concerns for John Parvensky, president of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.
"It is unfortunate that the city is moving more aggressively to enforce the camping ban ordinance at this time," Parvensky wrote in an e-mail. "While we agree with the mayor's office and businesses that the current conditions of people sleeping on the streets around the shelters is not sustainable, criminalization is not the answer."
The city's one-page notice, titled "Notice of Property Removal and Regular Sidewalk Cleanings," actually relies not on Denver's 2012 camping ban but on an older ordinance. That law empowers the Department of Public Works to order the removal of articles or vehicles that are "encumbering any street, alley, sidewalks, parkway or other public way or place," while the camping ban more broadly prohibits unauthorized camping on public and private property.
The city says it will begin posting the notice Monday morning, giving a 24-hour heads-up before property removal would start. Outreach workers also will provide the notice to campers.
The notice urges people to move all property, including small electronic devices, medications and important documents, or else the city will take it away. Workers will take cleared property to a secured warehouse on Glenarm Place downtown for up to 30 days, the city says. The notice says people can claim their confiscated property between noon and 2 p.m. on weekdays.
Smith added that the city will ramp up efforts to connect the campers with services at the same time it more strictly enforces city codes.
Also planned: the relaunch of a campaign called "Give a Better Way," which encourages people who want to help to do so in better ways rather than dropping off food, mattresses and other items, as has been done; and a pilot city jobs program for the homeless this spring or summer.
One impetus cited for the crackdown: the opening in November of the Lawrence Street Community Center, a day center built mostly with city money next to the Denver Rescue Mission men's shelter.
While the center has been used heavily during the day, Ballpark neighbors told The Post recentlythat sidewalk encampments have increased nearby overnight. And city officials say the center has provided more options during the day and should give the homeless reason to seek shelter at night.
A city fact sheet on the coming plan says the Rescue Mission's downtown and overflow shelters have been at 79 percent capacity, and no shelters have been turning people away. It also says 650 people have been connected since September with medical and mental health help, food, bus passes, housing and other services, but it doesn't break that down between people who already were in shelters and those staying outside.
"I know that if it wasn't for these shelters, there would be a lot more hungry people on the streets," Dishman said. "But a lot of people, for different reasons, aren't social and don't want to be confined with or around other people inside."
Not all campers have wanted to stay in shelters overnight, either.
"The shelters are not a good place for us," Alexis Ross, 20, told The Post in September, describing them as unclean and full of bedbugs. "That is why we are in the street."
Parvensky called the city's property-clearing plan "costly and counterproductive."
"The real solution to this issue is developing additional safe and appropriate emergency shelter and creating enough housing and service options so that those currently living on the streets can move into long-term housing for good."
The city recently moved ahead with a long-discussed "social impact bond" program that in coming years will provide up to 250 of the city's most chronically homeless individuals with supportive housing. But advocates and City Council members note the impact of that program, while laudable, will be limit ed for the larger homeless community.
Other plans in Denver include the opening later this year of a "solutions" center in Athmar Park that will offer behavioral health services and temporary shelter to homeless people.
But the city still faces more demand for homeless housing than it can provide, leaving shelters as the stop-gap — if people want to use them.
Jon Murray: 303-954-1405, firstname.lastname@example.org or @JonMurray
Staff writer Natalie Munio contributed to this report.