Parties involved in a class action lawsuit against the City and County of Denver over the city's homeless sweeps have reached a tentative deal. Attorney Jason Flores-Williams filed the lawsuit in August 2016 on behalf of thousands of homeless individuals when the city repeatedly removed personal property during sweeps of public spaces.
In his 36-page complaint, Flores-Williams argued that although the city classified these sweeps as clean-up efforts, they violated the constitutional rights and dignity of thousands of individuals experiencing homelessness. City officials maintained the stance that they carried out the sweeps with compassion and were well within the law. According to the city, authorities stored the items they removed for later retrieval.
The settlement between the city and Flores-Williams was announced on Feb. 27, just weeks before a jury trial was scheduled to start the process of deciding whether the city violated constitutional rights when they conducted the sweeps. As experts say that only 1% of civil cases actually reach trial in federal courts, this type of settlement is not unusual.
What was unusual was when District Court Judge William Martinez granted class certification to every person in Denver experiencing homelessness in April 2017, extending the plaintiff's representation to the city's entire homeless population. When Flores-Williams originally sued the city in Aug. 2016, he was only representing six individuals. This decision from Martinez brought the case into national headlines.
Many people were keeping track of the time it was taking for this case to move slowly through the court system, just as humans have been keeping time for 5,000 to 6,000 years. Fortunately, the long-awaited settlement includes many strategies the city will implement when it needs to conduct cleanups of homeless encampments.
According to the proposed deal, the city will give written notice of large-scale cleanups and property removal at least seven days in advance. They will give written notice for regular cleanups that include the days, hours, and locations of where they will occur. During these regular cleanups, the city will affix 48-hour notices to unattended personal property rather than removing it, as long as it does not pose a threat to public safety.
In an effort to improve the overall quality of life for those experiencing homelessness, the city will place two portable toilets with 24-hour access at Sonny Larson Park, add 15 trash receptacles to the Ballpark Neighborhood, and place sharps disposal boxes in a number of local parks with homeless encampments. This last initiative shows a stark change in the city's approach to caring for the homeless individuals in Denver who are part of the 2.7% of people aged 12 and over in the U.S. who admit dependence on illicit drugs. Previously, the city cited cleaning up needles as a primary reason for the sweeps in question.
The settlement also stipulated that the city gives each of the six people originally represented in the case $5,000 and covers their lawyers' fees.
The deal has yet to be approved by the City Council and a judge, but many are hopeful. Flores-Williams says that this proposed deal is finally recognizing that homeless people have due process rights like every other citizen and that it will prevent the city from taking essential gear such as sleeping bags and blankets from them. He sees the deal as a step in the right direction for people experiencing homelessness in Denver.
"It's not a panacea but it is something that gives them a voice in their own city," Flores-Williams said.