A class-action lawsuit meant to stop Denver officials from breaking up homeless encampments during the coronavirus pandemic will continue next month, though a ruling will take longer, an attorney involved in the case said.
That attorney, Andy McNulty, filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court of Colorado in October on behalf of about 10 people experiencing homelessness in the hopes of stopping the so-called encampment sweeps.
Breaking up illegal encampments makes it more difficult for those living on the streets to find work and stable housing and endangers them and the rest of the community by increasing the danger of exposure to COVID-19, he said.
A hearing on a request for a preliminary injunction began in mid-December and continued for two days, McNulty said. That hearing, which will continue early next year, is meant to determine whether Denver must stop the sweeps — which city officials call large-scale cleanups — for the duration of the lawsuit.
People experiencing homelessness are at greater risk if they contract the virus, McNulty said, because they more commonly suffer from underlying health conditions and have less access to medical care. And without offering a substantial amount of new housing options for the homeless, the city should not break up illegal encampments, he said.
It’s a common refrain from public health experts and homeless advocates alike. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also has issued guidance on the topic, recommending that governments avoid breaking up encampments unless they’re able to offer alternative housing options to those who would be displaced.
And while city officials — who did not respond to requests for comment — often have said Denver is following CDC guidelines, it’s less clear whether that’s actually the case. Two sanctioned encampments opened this month, but they only provide enough room for a maximum of 70 people, just a fraction of the overall homeless population. City officials have also worked to open more shelter space, though many fear for their safety and health in those congregate facilities. And the sweeps are continuing.
McNulty said his lawsuit against the city focuses on two recent and high-profile sweeps and he not only hopes to stop those practices in the future but also is seeking monetary damages for those whose property was destroyed or thrown away during the sweeps.
In two days of testimony, McNulty said elected officials, public health experts and nonprofit representatives offered their thoughts on the sweeps. The testimony will continue Jan. 11 and a ruling is expected in the days or weeks following, he said.
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