For homeless people, the streets, and the laws, are often gray areas

Police, court, other public institutions grapple with homelessness on streets in Englewood

Posted 8/22/18

To Englewood police Sgt. Tracy Jones, the homeless situation on the city’s central streets is a row of stops — the light-rail station, the library, the Englewood Trolley bus route, the Walmart, …

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For homeless people, the streets, and the laws, are often gray areas

Police, court, other public institutions grapple with homelessness on streets in Englewood

Posted

To Englewood police Sgt. Tracy Jones, the homeless situation on the city’s central streets is a row of stops — the light-rail station, the library, the Englewood Trolley bus route, the Walmart, liquor stores, a popular bus stop and the local hospital.

At points along that path, homeless individuals gather to pass time, use the internet or enjoy much-needed companionship. But some also shoplift or drink alcohol. A few in the city end up at Swedish Medical Center after drinking too much, police say.

Others pass through Judge Joe Jefferson’s municipal courtroom on charges such as shoplifting, trespassing or having alcohol in public — a handful rack up repeat offenses and months of jail time.

“Many of our contacts with homeless involve crimes, often petty crimes,” said Reid McGrath, a sergeant regarded as the Englewood Police Department’s in-house expert on homelessness. “It’s not that most homeless commit crimes; it’s just how we come into contact with them.”

In a city where recent years have seen more homeless on the streets, public spaces — Englewood’s library, the civic center as a whole and Swedish hospital — face the challenge of responding to a population that often generates complaints but that police say is affected significantly by co-occurring mental health and substance-use issues and needs a hand to break the vicious cycle.

That’s why Englewood police added a mental-health co-responder this spring, who rides along with officers to connect individuals with resources, and the court wants to expand its relationship with AllHealth Network, a behavioral-health provider, to connect the homeless to help.

And McGrath, representing the police force, is a member of the community action group Change the Trend Network, a coalition of churches, nonprofits, a health-care provider and the Englewood Police Department, which organized last year in response to concerns over the increasing homeless population. It is working to develop a step-by-step system to provide homeless individuals mental health assessments, substance-abuse evaluations and help finding jobs.

When a person gets to know the homeless, stereotypes break down, said Mike Sandgren, network leader for Change the Trend.

"It is clear that people experiencing homelessness operate in similar ways to everybody else,” Sandgren said. “They do not actively look for ways to break the law, they feel remorse when they do and the vast majority of them desire to be stable, law-abiding citizens.”

Navigating the hub

Although exact numbers are difficult to come by, police and city officials agree Englewood’s homeless population has increased in recent years and that it is affecting businesses, neighborhoods and public spaces.

“The homeless problem is much broader in scope than what we see along Englewood Parkway and South Broadway,” McGrath said. “Here and across the metro area, they live in cars, RVs, along waterways, under bridges, couch-surfing" and "with multiple families in one residence.”

But the city’s commercial hub, the CityCenter Englewood shopping center — roughly between South Santa Fe Drive and South Elati Street, and West Hampden and Floyd avenues — is a frequent stop for homeless individuals on the street, according to police and court officials.

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Englewood Parkway runs through the heart of that area. That street begins at the Englewood Civic Center — the building that houses the Englewood Public Library and the city’s offices — and is bordered on both sides by large and small retail stores and restaurants.

The beaten path for some homeless individuals often extends to Englewood Parkway and South Acoma Street, a corner notorious for public drinking, police say. A bus stop at that corner serves routes that run to downtown Denver, Northglenn and Aurora and south on Broadway to Littleton, Centennial and Highlands Ranch.

That bus stop also sits on the free Englewood Trolley route — formerly the Art Shuttle — that runs from the Englewood Civic Center to Englewood’s medical district across Broadway on East Hampden Avenue.

But McGrath also noted that while police often see homeless individuals ride the Trolley, it’s not clear that they do so in conjunction with drinking or shoplifting. In the winter, they ride the Trolley potentially as a way to keep warm, he said.

Some homeless individuals also end up at Swedish Medical Center after overdosing on alcohol or drugs, police added.

Randall Thompson, who has been homeless for about 5 1/2 years and frequents the CityCenter, said he hears from store associates and security at Walmart and King Soopers in the Englewood Parkway area that the stores have a “severe” shoplifting problem. He sees people who appear to be homeless often in those businesses, he said.

Jones also said homeless people shoplift at those locations. Sgt. Chad Read, spokesman for Englewood police, noted shoplifting is a problem throughout the Denver-metro area that is not isolated to the homeless. People with homes and jobs, he said, can pass through Englewood and can steal from liquor stores, Walmart and other businesses, too.

High-traffic areas for homeless individuals also include the Safeway near East Jefferson Avenue and South Logan Street, gas stations, parks and alleys parallel to Broadway — along South Lincoln and Acoma streets, police said.

To the south of CityCenter, business owners on the 4300 block of Broadway have brought complaints to police and the city about incidents ranging from sleeping near businesses to altercations outside front doors. Giving Heart, a homeless-services center on that block, has been mentioned in several complaints at Englewood City Council meetings.

The Englewood police Impact Team, which focuses on problem locations in the city, was assigned, among other places, to the area around Giving Heart in late January. The team is composed of McGrath and four officers.

According to a police memorandum on what Impact Team officers found during the week of Jan. 23 and the following week — in plainclothes and in uniform — officers did not see criminal violations or homeless people loitering on the block. In total, the police department received nine calls for service specifically involving transients in the area over a six-month period going back to last summer, according to the Feb. 2 memo.

Most law violations by homeless individuals aren’t severe, Officer Heidi Bradley said. Many of the crimes are failures to appear in court, trespassing or having an open alcohol container in public, she said.

Shoplifting, trespassing and having alcohol in public are among the most common offenses for people who seem to be homeless, Jefferson said. Public urination at the Acoma Street bus stop is also common, he said.

Most of those actions aren’t crimes when a person has a home in which to do them, Sandgren pointed out.

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“Those of us who have a home have the ability to use the bathroom, have a drink or spend time in our own private residences,” Sandgren said. “The difference for people experiencing homelessness is that they do not have homes in which to do these actions.”

Travelers and locals

Many in Englewood’s homeless population have roots in the city, while others come from Denver, other Colorado areas or beyond.

“A lot are lifetime residents who grew up in Englewood,” McGrath said.

Police have frequent contact with about 20 homeless people who are Englewood residents, some of whom have lived there most of their lives, McGrath said. Police contacted one homeless person recently who grew up in Cherry Hills Village, a neighboring and affluent city, McGrath said in early July.

Some arrive from out of state in cars, sometimes telling police they’re here for legal pot, Jones said.

But according to a June report by the Police Executive Research Forum — an organization that takes in-depth looks at issues related to law enforcement — researchers have found no clear correlation between legal pot and homelessness.

Police officials say states with legal pot may be attracting people who may be homeless but don’t share characteristics with many chronically homeless individuals — they tend not to have mental illness or abuse alcohol or other drugs, the report said. In Colorado, they tend to be young and not in need of social services, it added.

Bradley has had a front-row seat to an influx of out-of-state travelers who come into contact with police.

“This year has been crazy — the increase in people who visit here but don’t live here ending up homeless in Englewood,” she said.

Face to face

Police interactions with homeless people run the gamut from a referral for resources to situations that involve use of force, McGrath said.

Usually, if officers contact a homeless person, McGrath said, it stems from a call for service, which can be criminal in nature, like someone drinking in front of a business, or simply a caller not wanting homeless individuals on a sidewalk.

“When there’s a criminal violation involved, usually some degree of enforcement activity” occurs, McGrath said. “Sometimes, it might be a criminal warning, which is just asking them to stop their behavior. Sometimes, a summons (is given) — occasionally an arrest.”

McGrath and the Impact Team, for instance, contact homeless people to connect them with assistance, often with help from Englewood police’s mental health co-responder, a new position added to the department in June.

“Today, I contacted a homeless individual for a very minor criminal violation,” said McGrath, adding the individual received a warning. He “was referred to Café 180 and downtown Denver services. I was able to give him a card for a free lunch at Café 180, for which he was greatly appreciative.”

Most interactions go relatively well, and for “many of them, we know each other’s names,” McGrath said. It’s important to remember that “the homeless are people and they have rights ... Many factors brought them to where they are at. Some have jobs, and many do not want to be in the situations they are in.”

Considering deterrents

As Englewood grapples with how to respond to its homeless population, the city government is considering a ban on outdoor camping.

Denver in 2012 banned staying in an outdoor place with a tent, sleeping bag or other shelter, a policy that advocates for the homeless say may be pushing more homeless into the suburbs. In a 2013 survey of 512 homeless people in central Denver by the advocacy group Denver Homeless Out Loud, 20 percent of respondents said that after the ban they more often sleep in outlying neighborhoods or surrounding cities.

A large number of homeless also come to Englewood because it’s safer than Denver in terms of crime and violence, Englewood police said.

Donna Zimmerman, director at Giving Heart, the homeless-services center on South Broadway that began operating in 2011, agreed. She noted that homeless who use services in Denver may prefer to sleep in Englewood — on the river, in alleys, in parks or behind stores — to avoid safety issues at Denver shelters.

Eric Keck, Englewood’s city manager, said Englewood is looking into the topic of a camping ban, but its future isn’t certain.

“It is not as simple as it may sound and may actually be in conflict with other case law regarding the rights of individuals and the homeless,” Keck said. “Before the city were to move forward with any ordinance relating to a ban on camping, careful legal analysis and study will take place.”

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But the city has moved homeless people under different legal grounds.

During a cleanup along the South Platte River in January, Englewood police cleared 21 campsites and about 30 people living on its east banks. Some 25 truckloads of trash, human waste, syringes and needles were hauled out in the area designated as a flood-control mitigation area.

The city also can move homeless people from public property under laws against loitering or trespassing. Officers often give trespass notices — which ban a person from returning for one year — at the civic center.

In Denver, the number of trespass citations given by police to homeless individuals increased by about 31 percent from 2014 to 2017, according to a study by the University of Denver Sturm College of Law based on Denver Police Department data.

Englewood saw an increase in trespass citations overall in the years following 2012. In response to a Colorado Community Media records request, the Englewood Police Department provided data on trespass citations and calls for service from 2012-2017.

McGrath noted the department does not track data based on housing status, and it’s unclear what proportion of citations or calls for service regarding trespassing involve homeless individuals.

But speaking generally, McGrath said, “We believe the increase in homeless population has increased calls for service as well as summons issued for trespassing.”

From 2012 to 2015, calls for service for potential trespassing per year increased 10.7 percent citywide, from 356 to 394. On Englewood Parkway — a road just over half a mile long — the number tripled, from 30 to 91 over that three-year period.

A verbal warning or trespass notice can be given out before trespass citations, or summonses, which require a court appearance. From 2012 to 2014, trespass citations per year increased steeply citywide, from 64 to 173. On Englewood Parkway, they leapt from nine to 102 during that time span.

In 2016, police received 518 calls citywide for service for potential trespassing, the highest number between 2012-2017, and issued 143 trespass citations. In 2017, that number declined to 435 calls and 97 citations — 35 of which happened on Englewood Parkway, which includes the civic center area, Walmart and other businesses.

Thompson, the homeless man who often comes to CityCenter, has been on the other end of a trespass call.

MORE: Without family, 'I had no options'

On a recent afternoon in July, he was resting on the grass along the street near Englewood Parkway, just hours after police barred him from the civic center area. He said he had been waiting for the library to open, resting on a nearby bench with his belongings beside him, when a security guard asked him to leave and called police, who issued him a trespass notice.

Thompson became homeless when fire damage years ago at the home he owns in Denver made it uninhabitable, he said. He has spent the past few years working on his house — he often buys supplies at the CityCenter area when he can.

He sleeps in places where he can’t easily be seen throughout Denver and Jefferson County, but also spends time in Englewood. Police officers, he said, have found him a few times and they’ve been reasonable.

But he questions what options homeless people have.

“If you don’t have a place to stay, where do you go?” Thompson said. “Anywhere you go, you’ll be trespassing.”

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