Friday, 18 Sep 2020

Outbreaks don’t justify breaking up Denver’s homeless camps, expert says

Denver officials cited outbreaks of Hepatitis and Shigella when they resumed homeless sweeps last month, but a national expert and a local advocate say the numbers of positive tests health officials have disclosed to The Denver Post don’t justify the actions.

The city also cited a fatal shooting downtown as a factor in clearing out a nearby encampment of people experiencing homelessness, even though police still can’t say whether the shooting was connected at all to the gathering that was cleared out just a week later.

Still, Denver Public Health Director Bob McDonald stands behind the actions and said the overall conditions at encampments support his decision to break them up.

City officials cleared out another encampment Tuesday as protesters shouted profanities at police and city officials. Another sweep is scheduled for Wednesday.

There is a Hepatitis A outbreak in Colorado — and in Denver — but it’s not new, nor is it on the rise.

The outbreak began in September 2018 and peaked almost exactly a year later, according to data collected by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Since then, the number of cases reported has declined, averaging less than a single reported case statewide each week of 2020.

Denver has seen a total of more than 100 cases of Hepatitis A since the outbreak began but only three new cases since June, said Tammy Vigil, spokesperson for the city’s Department of Public Health And Environment.

McDonald couldn’t say whether those three cases were contracted by people experiencing homelessness.

A total of 20 cases of Shigella have been reported in Denver since May, Vigil said. Five of those cases were reportedly connected to separate encampments, but it’s unclear whether the rest were connected to encampments.

At least four cases of Trench Fever have also been reported in Denver, but that’s not something city officials track specifically, Vigil said.

While those relatively small case numbers can qualify as outbreaks, they don’t qualify as emergencies, said Dr. Jim O’Connell, president of the Boston Healthcare for the Homeless program and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.

And breaking up encampments during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic only exposes people further to a deadlier virus, he said. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended against breaking up encampments during the pandemic because the coronavirus is likelier to spread when people are closer together, as in shelters.

“It sounds alarming to say ‘We’ve got to clear these out because of the outbreaks,’” O’Connell said. “It might be pushing the public health issue a bit further than there are facts for.”

Plus, breaking up the encampments does nothing to quell the outbreaks, O’Connell said.

Cathay Alderman, of Denver’s Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, agreed.

“If you’re going to tell us that there is a Hepatitis outbreak then go in and treat it like a Hepatitis outbreak,” Alderman said. “Don’t treat it like a camping ban enforcement.”

But McDonald said those outbreaks and reports of violence only constitute part of his decision. Other considerations include rodent infestations, the locations of the encampments, the accumulation of food and human waste, and criminal elements like narcotics and prostitution, he has said.

Certainly, the encampments pose a complicated problem that has challenged Denver officials for years.

In recent weeks, the sweeps have become so contentious that Denver police have started to tape off encampments while staff goes to work. Protesters toed that line Tuesday at the corner of 22nd and Stout streets, shouting profanities at officers standing guard and asking them to leave the encampments alone.

Another sweep is scheduled Wednesday for the encampments along Park Avenue and 22nd Street from Stout Street to California Street, city officials say.

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