Urban camping a growing problem in Denver despite ban; city spending millions to help combat issue

DENVER - The Denver City Council approved an urban camping ban in 2012, but downtown residents say the homeless situation in the area is the worst that it's ever been.

7NEWS Reporter Jaclyn Allen got a firsthand look at the dangerous combination of drugs, camping and homelessness that's occurring along the banks of Cherry Creek.

"There's been a huge influx we've noticed," said Officer Ligea Craven, with the Denver Police Department's homeless outreach team.

Denver resident Shannon Guy said the drug use along the creek has come out of the shadows.

"I've run down here for 15 years, and in the entire 15 years, I've probably seen three people shooting up hard drugs, and now you can count like 10 a day. I count them when I run," said Guy.

Gary Wetzel has lived downtown for two decades. He took photos of the increasing homeless population on one recent morning walk along the popular path.

"There are groups of people in sleeping bags, some tents, hammocks and (with) cooking gear," Wetzel said.

What Wetzel has been seeing is different from the actions of typical homeless populations -- where people set up camps in the middle of the city.

"(They are) urinating in the fountain and defecating on the trail. These are things I haven't seen until this year, where I have come across human waste," said Wetzel.

"The information you're receiving is correct," said Denver Police Cmdr. Tony Lopez. "We have seen an uptick in people along the Platte River."

Lopez said even though Denver has a camping ban, there has to be a balance between public safety and people's rights.

"Have you cited anyone?" asked Allen.

"We have not yet. The objective was not to make criminals out of people who are indigent, who are homeless," said Lopez.

However, police are taking action.

On Thursday, homeless outreach officers organized a campsite cleanup.

"We try to do this at least once a week, so that it doesn't pile up," said Craven. "I posted this site about a week and a half ago, so they knew we were coming."

The officers were joined by trustees from the Denver Sheriff Department, and spent hours clearing debris left by homeless people along the creek.

"Don't pick up any needles with your hands," said Craven. "Be careful."

Allen said the group picked up used pillows, luggage and many Starbucks cups.

"I know people get really frustrated because they don't believe or see us down here, but we're down here quite often," said Craven.

She said the newcomers camping out now are different, and not from Denver.

"To me, they suck the city dry for people who really need those things and then they move on to the next city. If you talk to them, they said this is their God-given right -- they can do this freely," said Craven.

Police and service providers say it's too soon to know if the influx of homeless people in downtown is tied to the legalization of recreational marijuana.

Denver police say they've dramatically increased the number of public marijuana consumption citations issued. Last year through June, police said there were about 139 tickets issued. This year through the end of July, 480 citations have been issued for public consumption of marijuana.

But as quickly as officers can clear out the homeless camps around downtown, Craven says the areas will be filled up again in a week.

It's a problem that's grown so serious that the Denver City Council recently approved nearly $2 million and 10 new officers to deal with the homelessness issue downtown.

"My wife will no longer walk alone, which is a sad state," said Wetzel.

In February, 7NEWS shot footage of the trail under the bridge on Broadway at around 7 a.m. At least half a dozen people were sleeping under the bridge -- some with tents. A clear violation of the ordinance.

7NEWS contacted Denver police at that time, who passed us along to Denver's Road Home. The organization is a collaboration between the City and County of Denver, Mile High United Way, homeless service providers and faith-based organizations. It is tasked to lower the city's homeless population as part of a 10-year plan.

When the urban camping ordinance passed in 2012, Denver's Road Home worked on an implementation plan with Denver police. Together, members of the groups make up a 21-member outreach team.

"They move throughout the city," said Denver's Road Home Executive Director Bennie Milliner in February. "Their main objective is to contact people to make sure first and foremost that they're safe."

If an outreach worker comes across an encampment, he or she is supposed to contact Denver police. Officers will contact the people involved and give them 72 hours to move their belongings out of the area. As long as people comply with officers, they will not be ticketed.

Denver's Road Home said since the 2012 ordinance, they have made space for an additional 600 shelter beds.

Mile High United Way 211 has a complete list of homeless services. To contact Denver’s Road Home regarding a homeless matter, please call 311 or email DenversRoadHome@denvergov.org.

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