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Denver City Council Upholds Mayor’s ‘No Freezing Sweeps’ Veto

‘Ya’ll Just Voted To Kill People!’

Denver, CO — On the afternoon of February 12, the Denver City Council again voted on the “No Freezing Sweeps” bill in their chambers, but this time the vote was to potentially override Mayor Mike Johnston’s veto of the Council’s passage of the bill. When the roll call took place, each council member voted exactly as they did on January 29 — seven ayes, six nays — yet this time, that vote count resulted in the official failure of the bill. At least nine “aye” votes were needed for a successful override.

Denver City Council Maintains Mayor’s Veto of ‘No Freezing Sweeps’ Bill from Unicorn Riot on Vimeo.

“Each and every one of ya’ll that voted ‘no,’ ya’ll just voted to kill people!” Jerry Burton of Housekeys Action Network Denver (HAND), a local advocacy group for houseless people and their rights, was one of a few people who stood up and yelled at the City Council after the bill was officially voted down.

He continued, “You cannot make a person go where they don’t want to go!” Burton is a Marine Corps veteran who was previously unhoused, and has been an outspoken advocate for years. While unhoused, Burton was swept, or forcibly removed from his outdoor encampment, multiple times in the winter months. Unicorn Riot was present on November 28, 2016, when Burton was ticketed for illegal camping and told he needed to exit his tent. He told the police officers, “I cannot come out my damn tent, I got to let my body warm the fuck up!”

After a months-long effort by multiple different advocacy organizations and council members to stop sweeps in temperatures of 32 degrees Fahrenheit or below, the failed override vote sent a clear message about Denver’s current administration. “[The mayor] wants to continue to enforce the camping ban and the other laws to keep houseless people out of sight, and in particular, to appease all of the angry rich neighbors that he’s been promising that the streets would be cleared of encampments as of January,” Terese Howard of HAND told Unicorn Riot.

Howard emphasized the extent of collaboration that HAND, other organizations and the council members who were cosponsors of the bill tried to have with Mayor Johnston and his administration from the time the bill was being drafted up until his veto of its passage.

“We did communicate with him about this bill, all during the early drafting from before it was even introduced, and never in that process did he say he was going to oppose, he brought up a few concerns, but it was nothing clear about like, ‘I want this specific amendment or I want this, or I’m going to oppose.’”

The mayor sent an unexpected opposition letter to City Council on December 19, 2023, a day before the bill was set to be heard in front of the Safety, Housing, Education & Homelessness Committee. (At the time, there was another bill being heard as well, one “to require the opening of facilities for temporary shelter when the outside temperature is predicted to be thirty-two degrees Fahrenheit or lower.” That ordinance was put on hold as the bill sponsors chose to work with the mayor on a pilot program.)

In his letter, he asserted that the “No Freezing Sweeps” bill proponents were the ones not being willing to collaborate or consider his amendments. His listed amendments, however, would have effectively voided the bill’s purpose.

The crux of City Council Bill 23-1960 was the amendments to three current ordinances in Denver’s Revised Municipal Code which give the city the authority to sweep residents. The mayor’s suggested amendments included not amending those three city laws. His other amendment, though, did get added into the bill before he decided to veto it.

Howard told Unicorn Riot that “within the couple of days after the final council vote and before he vetoed, knowing that that was likely, we reached out to him with a draft amendment to address his stated concerns.” The mayor asked for an exemption for: “Encampment resolution that puts people on a path to housing.”

“Encampment resolutions” and “encampment decommissionings” are what he and his administration call sweeps, and they are part of a program called “House1000” where the city conducts sweeps and asks the residents if they want to go into a non-congregate shelter such as a hotel room or micro-unit for an extended period of time. Mayor Johnston believed the bill would have impeded the city from continuing that program. Advocates of the bill were resolute that it would not.

“So even though we absolutely 100% do not believe it does do that because you can still move people into the hotels prior to the closure and sweep, but just to appease any of those concerns,” Howard told Unicorn Riot, “We said, ‘okay, look, here’s an amendment to just exempt these closures, so anytime you’re doing an encampment resolution … then we’ll exempt you, you can do it in the cold.’”

However, the mayor went on to veto the bill on February 2, 2024.

During the time between the veto and the Council’s override vote on February 12, advocates conducted six interviews with unhoused residents who had been swept under the Johnston administration in 32 degrees or below.

“[Councilman] Hinds’ whole excuse was it’s not happening under Johnston, he tried to use that as an excuse,” Howard exclaimed in the hall outside City Council after the override vote, where Hinds was one of the opposing votes. “So last week we went out, just last week, and we did six interviews with houseless people who have been swept this winter under Johnston, we sent him all six of those interviews.”

One of the video interviews they gathered was with a 62-year-old named Gary. He was swept without warning from the encampment he was living at, and during the sweep he was ill and was throwing up. He said that even while visibly sick, the police continued to force him to move, telling him, “Hey! Hurry up! Hurry up!” Gary said after they wouldn’t leave him alone, he told them to “take everything because that’s what you’re going to do anyway.”

“And they sure did, they got the bulldozer, took all my — took everything in my life.”

Gary, unhoused Denver resident

Gary ended up in the hospital after having to sleep out in the cold and wet conditions without any gear. He explained some of his chronic ailments in the video including how he has a urostomy bag for urine, and how it freezes in the winter.

Directly before the Council override vote, City Council President Jamie Torres (D3), who was a cosponsor of the bill, spoke out about Johnston’s stated concerns in his veto letter. “In the mayor’s letter, he contends this bill restricts his ability to close encampments due to public health and safety risks, it does not. It specifically allows for that.”

She continued to say, “On the few days when it’s freezing all day, why can’t we say we will wait a few more days until it warms up? Why can’t we say that? We can still do outreach while they’re there.”

Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer (D5), who was in opposition to the bill, commented on the high tensions in the chambers: “This is the beauty and the pain of democracy at the same time.”

Howard, among other advocates, have worked for over 12 years on city and state legislation to try and secure more rights for unhoused residents, and according to her, democracy isn’t working.

“This is the first bill we’ve ever passed City Council, ever! The first houseless rights bill in the past 12 years that I’ve been doing this fight, this is the first bill we’ve ever passed City Council and the fucking mayor vetoes it, and we don’t have the votes to override the veto.” Howard continued, “But that’s how hard this is.”

“I cannot tell you from personal experience, just speaking from my own personal experience the past 12 years of fighting on the legislative level on this shit how fucking hard it is to get anything past these fuckers!”

Terese Howard, HAND

Click here to watch the Denver City Council recording of the override vote.

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