Residents call Denver’s homeless encampment trash service a good step

Georgina Anne Alberson washes her clothes by hand almost every day, using water she siphons from a trash barrel while she sits next to her shower tent at the corner of Eighth Avenue and Logan Street.

“Everyone wants to smell good,” Alberson said. “I’ve got a horrible smell issue. I try to make sure I don’t leave anything gross. Some people think we can just get over it, but I can’t.”

Alberson has been living in the homeless encampment that stretches between Grant and Logan on Eighth Avenue in the Capitol Hill neighborhood for about two weeks, but she’s been on the streets of Denver off and on since losing her house in 2012.

While living at this encampment, she said she’s tried to keep it clean so the smells don’t get bad, but it’s hard when there’s nowhere to put trash.

“Everybody has had a trashy area,” Alberson said of the other encampment residents. “I try to keep mine clean, but it gets trashy, too.”

But a new city service to assist in the health and hygiene of some of Denver’s unhoused people looks like it could be a step in the right direction, Alberson said.

Last week, the city started a trash pickup service at Alberson’s encampment and the encampment at 16th Avenue and Logan Street in the Uptown neighborhood.

Residents at the Capitol Hill encampment said city officials came by with orange trash bags and told them to start putting trash in them, and the city would pick the bags up every week.

A city trash truck will come through on Mondays and Thursdays to pick up the orange bags, said Katie Wamsley with the Joint Information Center through Denver’s Office of Emergency Management. The truck will leave new bags for trash during each pickup.

“Keeping areas clean benefits everyone,” Wamsley said. “At the end of the day, while we are working to move 1,000 people indoors by the end of the year, we still have to consider the health and safety of our unhoused population.”

Wamsley said this new measure came from Mayor Mike Johnston’s office after advocacy organizations asked his administration to help in this way. City teams that work with people experiencing homelessness in Denver also saw this as a pressing need, she said.

Johnston campaigned on a promise of ending unsheltered homelessness in his first four-year term. His first act after being sworn in was declaring homelessness an emergency in the city and committing to offering housing to 1,000 people living on the city’s streets before 2023 is through.

As part of that commitment, Johnston has reassessed the approach for sweeping encampments, which are illegal under the city’s urban camping ban. The goal is to engage with the people living in an encampment and prepare them to move to more stable housing once the city can secure units for all of them, a process the mayor calls decommissioning. In the meantime, the city plans to only perform sweeps when an encampment is infringing on private property, blocking a public right of way or when it presents a substantial risk to public health or safety.

On Wednesday, Johnston confirmed the city will be performing a sweep of an encampment at the intersection of 22nd and Stout streets on Friday morning because of a rodent infestation.

“We were very worried about the health and safety of the folks that were in that encampment as well as the surrounding neighborhood. That was why we greenlighted it for a cleanup,” the mayor said at a news conference.

Another resident of the Eighth Avenue encampment, who goes by Ed, said he thinks the trash service is needed, but he worries not enough people will chip in to make their areas clean.

Ed has been homeless in Denver for about a year after he got stranded in a blizzard on his way home and someone stole his ID. He’s lived at the encampment for a few weeks as well, and he keeps his orange trash bag in a paint bucket in front of his tent.

“We got a lot more trash than just one bag,” Ed said. “But I think it could help eventually. Nobody likes looking at a bunch of trash, like down there at the end (of the encampment). It’ll look better in a bunch of bags, but some people aren’t going to help.”

One side of the encampment on Logan Street is littered with rotten bags of food, fast food trash and old clothes. Someone filled an orange bag with some of the trash, but more is spread across the pavement.

Ed said he wants the place to look better because then maybe people wouldn’t treat them so poorly.

“They hate us,” he said of housed residents in the neighborhood. “They hate us so much, people will drive by in the middle of the night and blow their horns and rev their engines. They do it so much, they must be thinking about us constantly.”

The trash pickup doesn’t address other problems both Alberson and Ed agree are especially needed: showers, restrooms, and a place to wash clothes.

Alberson has a privacy tent she uses to shower with the same water with which she washes her clothes. She charges a few bucks to wash other people’s clothes, but it’s not enough to go around for everyone.

“Water, trash, laundry, body soap,” Alberson said. “If there’s an area to wash clothes, I know more people will use it. It’s upgrading our life; how we feel about ourselves.”

When that happens, Alberson said, she and the people at the encampment will be able to get more rest, which will lead to making a better life for themselves off the streets.

Because they’re out in public and usually don’t have money to buy something at a business that only lets customers use the restroom, most people don’t have anywhere to use the restroom.

“When (the city) sees a homeless camp go up, why can’t they send a port-a-john,” Ed said. “It would help tremendously. When I don’t have a place to go, I bring my trashcan into my tent and go in it.”

Wamsley said city officials have talked about implementing similar health and hygiene services for restrooms and showers, but no plans are in place while officials figure out how they can get those services to people experiencing unsheltered homelessness.

The current trash pickup doesn’t have an end date, Wamsley said, and unsheltered people in other places in the city can request trash services as needed, even if they aren’t on this specific pickup route.

Denver Post reporter Joe Rubino contributed to this report.

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