Denver mayor vetoes freezing sweeps bill, citing hindrance to city operations

DENVER (KDVR) — Denver Mayor Mike Johnston vetoed a City Council ordinance on Friday that would have banned sweeps of homeless encampments if the temperatures were below 32 degrees.

Johnston said this was because the measure would make it “more difficult” for the city to help people experiencing homelessness find shelter during cold, unsafe conditions.

“Though well-intentioned, this legislation would restrict the city’s ability to do this life-saving work for approximately four months of the year,” Johnston’s office wrote in a statement about the veto.

Denver City Council approved the freezing sweep ban in a 7-6 vote on Monday after a couple of amendments were made. A previous measure that would have kept warming shelters open when temperatures are under 32 degrees (instead of the enacted 20 degrees) failed earlier this year.

Opponents of the freezing sweep ban said it would lead to longer stays on the streets and hurt progress made to get people into housing. The Mayor’s Office says it moved 1,200 Denverites off the streets and indoors last year during its House1000 effort.

Councilwoman Shontel Lewis, a co-sponsor of the bill, responded to the mayor’s veto with a statement Friday afternoon.

“Medical experts, including physicians, and those with lived experience have spoken to the importance of resourcing those living unsheltered in dangerous weather in-place,” Lewis wrote. “Asking people to move in the cold can exasperate existing conditions while increasing the risk of frost bite and hypothermia. I look forward to continuing to collaborate with my colleagues on Council, who already support this initiative, and the Mayor’s Office on a version of this bill which follows the experts’ advice that we can agree to pass.”

In a letter to Denver City Council, Johnston noted that since July 17, there have been over 60 community meetings focused on housing and services for people living in encampments across the city.

“In those conversations, it has been clear that Denverites believe we have a moral obligation to provide housing and services to people experiencing homelessness, and that the city has a responsibility to keep neighborhoods clear of encampments,” Johnston wrote. “We, together with City Council, community partners and advocates, have spent the last six months developing an extremely successful system to deliver on both responsibilities, and I believe this legislation would significantly disrupt that successful effort during the winter months.”

Johnston clarified that the city has not, nor intends, to “do large encumbrance removals” when temperatures are under freezing without housing or shelter options, “with the exception of major public health and safety risks.”

He said the drafted legislation would:

  • Prevent the city from closing encampments and moving people into housing
  • Overturn the city-adopted camping ban for up to a third of the year
  • Eliminate the city’s ability to close or move encampments that are in the public right of way
  • Eliminate the city’s ability to prevent encampments near new shelter sites and maintain closures of encampments that have been resolved
  • Restrict the city’s ability to close encampments due to public health and safety risks

“We all share the common goal of protecting our most vulnerable neighbors as we work to end unsheltered homelessness in Denver,” Johnston wrote. “Despite this specific disagreement, I know we will continue to work together toward delivering on this shared goal.”

In a radio interview Friday morning with KOA, the mayor had not yet released his decision on the freezing sweeps bill. He said the city’s main priority remains getting people off the streets, and pointed to his House1000 initiative as a historical example of success.

“We want to keep the promise to the city that we’ve made that we can both get people off the streets and indoors and that we can keep encampments closed and keep neighborhoods open for all of our public spaces to be enjoyed,” Johnston said in the interview.

Johnston said he will be working closely with council to find a path forward.

Source: Rocky Mountain News

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