This past week, the City of Denver warned inhabitants of homeless encampments throughout the city—but especially along Park Avenue West and Lawrence Street—to remove their belongings from the streets or have them confiscated by November 15. This was another in a series of “sweep operations” where the city removes and collects belongings of homeless individuals, holding them for up to 60 days. The individuals may pick up their belongings at any time during that period, but the city hopes that cleaning up those belongings will keep individuals from returning to the streets.
But that is not what’s happening. After the sweeps on Wednesday, many encampments were back the very next day, with the support of lawyer Jason Flores-Williams who is suing Denver in federal court over these sweeps which he considers unconstitutional. These sweeps are also forcing many others to question the effectiveness of the city’s actions and whether the goal—to help homeless individuals—is any closer to fruition. New York artist Sarah Gerard wants to address the growing homelessness in Denver and the city’s response during her residency at PlatteForum, with help from students participating in Mi Casa at North High School. Their collaboration will result in an art exhibition titled Dear Mayor Hancock, What Are You Going to Do? at PlatteForum on 2400 Curtis Street, December 17-23.
According to the spokeswoman for the Denver Department of Human Services, Julie Smith, “the city is trying to walk a delicate balance between protecting the health and safety of all residents while continuing to work with compassion to connect those who are experiencing homelessness to resources.” There is a very different story coming from those experiencing the homelessness, however.
“The cops used to come by once a year, now it’s twice a night,” the Los Angeles Times reported one Denver man experiencing homelessness remarking about the sweeps, “they shine a light in our eyes and tell us if we stay they’ll take our stuff. Then they say they’ll take us to a shelter. The shelters are disgusting. Shelters are for dogs.”
Tensions between city officials and homeless populations in Denver are not going away with arrests and sweeps. It seems that other solutions will have to be considered, regardless of the reason behind the growing numbers of homeless individuals. Gerard and the students working with her during her artist residency at PlatteForum are dedicating their time to tackle this issue, hoping to expose homelessness in a different perspective and incite conversation and action toward eliminating tensions between the city and the homeless within it.
Dear Mayor Hancock, What Are You Going to Do? will include news zines for sale, audio and video portraits of homeless individuals in Denver and an installation filled with artifacts from the streets. The ultimate goal is to “catalyze tangible policy changes”—changes designed to improve the situation and have the approval of both the homeless population and the city officials. But this art exhibition is also meant to be a reminder for the rest of us in Denver that homelessness is expanding and we need to find more appropriate solutions than “cleaning up” the streets using police.
Dear Mayor Hancock, What Are You Going to Do? can be viewed at 2400 Curtis Street from Saturday, December 17 until Friday, December 23. Opening reception on December 17 is from 12-3 p.m. and is free and open to the public. Regular gallery hours are Tuesday-Friday, 12-6 p.m. For more information about the artist, Sarah Gerard, visit her website here.