This spring a federal judge granted class action status to a lawsuit against the city of Denver over its practice of periodically “sweeping” the belongings of people experiencing homelessness from downtown streets.
By Adam Sennott
Photo by Andrew Kenney
A U.S. District Court Judge in Colorado granted class certification on April 27 to a group alleging the City of Denver’s enforcement of its camping ban violated the rights of thousands of homeless individuals.
The ruling by Judge William J. Martinez applies to injunctive relief, which means that a ruling in favor of the plaintiffs could force the city to change its policies, including posting advance notice of sweeps, or barring the sweeps all together.
While Martinez denied plaintiff attorney Jason Flores-Williams’ motion to seek class certification to collect damages, he did so “without prejudice” and may reconsider if “it becomes clear that Denver behaved as [p]laintiffs allege.”
The lawsuit, which was originally filed by a group of nine homeless individuals in late October, alleged the city “engaged in a systemic evisceration of thousands of displaced persons’ constitutional rights in order to clear the way for new housing and economic development in the Downtown Denver area.”
Flores-Williams said that the city has turned the lives of homeless people “into a living hell of unconstitutional government repression” by sending police, DPW workers, and even inmates to tear apart homeless encampments.
“They’ll send everybody in and then they’ll just sweep them straight up,” Flores-Williams said.
Flores-Williams said the city conducted a sweep of an encampment on July 13, 2016, at Arkins Court, near the Platte River. Officials waited until 5 a.m., after media and advocates had gone home, and then they tore the place up.
“They just sent in cops with garbage trucks,” Flores-Williams said. “They took their property and they trashed it and harassed those people so that most of them just have fled. They’re terrified of Denver.
“When the city doesn’t think anybody is watching, they become exactly the same as stormtroopers.”
Enforcement of the camping ban isn’t limited to large encampments, Flores-Williams said. He was recently walking down Colfax Avenue in downtown Denver when he saw two squad cars near two homeless people who were sitting under a blanket.
“That happens all the time,” Flores-Williams said. “Poor and homeless people in this town are always under assault, twenty-four-seven. It is criminalization of the most vulnerable people in our society,” Flores-Williams said.
Therese Howard, an organizer for Denver Homeless Out Loud, said that the sweeps have scared many of the homeless out of the city.
“They have been sweeping so hard over the last year that a large number of people have moved far outside of the city limits, to the outskirts of town,” Howard said.
Many of the people who have been pushed to the outskirts can no longer access resources they relied upon, Howard said.
“A lot of people are really hungry because there’s not a lot of food out there,” Howard said. “It’s hard to get to appointments that folks need to get to.
“There’s a lot of detrimental and life-threatening effects of these sweeps,” Howard said.
The city did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
As the case moves forward, Flores-Williams said it could wind up impacting similar camping bans in cities across the country.
According to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty’s 2017 litigation manual, “Housing Not Handcuffs,” about one third of cities nationwide ban camping, a 69 percent increase since 2006. Though 57 percent of the cases challenging enforcement of camping or sleeping restrictions were successful.
While Flores-Williams and his clients are happy about the outcome so far, they still have hurdles they must overcome.
AlthoughJudge Martinez commended Flores-Williams’ “deep, authentic commitment” in his ruling giving the suit class certification, he also expressed concern that he was so “thoroughly convinced of the moral righteousness of his clients’ cause” that he was suffering from “confirmation bias.”
“Such a lawyer tends to do what Mr. Flores-Williams does, namely, ignore or quickly pass over the opposing party’s specific arguments and instead lean on rhetoric intended to shame the opposing party for choosing to oppose,” Martinez said.
Regardless, Martinez appointed Flores-Williams as class council, and noted that he’s seen improvement in his recent filings.
“The Court repeats, moreover, that Mr. Flores-Williams has already shown substantial and commendable dedication to the undoubtedly difficult task of organizing a potential class of homeless persons,” Martinez said. “He has developed and demonstrated experience in an area where most lawyers (including most plaintiffs’ civil rights lawyers) have none.”
Flores-Williams said that he wanted to develop an “aggressive legal strategy” from the beginning.
“It’s the right legal strategy,” Flores-Williams said. “It’s honest, and it’s what the situation demands.” ■