Content Warning: This article includes topics of physical, emotional, psychological, and financial abuse. Other topics include harassment, neglect, predatory behavior, and exploitation. We encourage self-care. If needed, please speak with an advocate from any of the following organizations: National Domestic Violence Hotline 1-800-799-SAFE (7233), Stronghearts Native Hotline1-844-7NATIVE (762-8483), or Violence Free Colorado 720-728-8368.
“She can’t get help anywhere. To receive assistance, she is required to provide a picture. She cannot take one though because her face has been broken in so many places from living on the street. She can’t go to the doctor, her belongings have been swept numerous times.”
Ana Sofia Cornelius, with Denver Homeless Out Loud (DHOL), continues, “And now, one of the DOTI supervisors keeps asking her out. While she’s getting swept, he’s asking her out.” Domestic violence (DV) advocates identify this type of predatory behavior as grooming, a tactic used by perpetrators to build trust and give the impression of a false intimate relationship.
Domestic violence and homelessness go hand in hand. The risk of losing housing or access to money for basic needs is one of the main reasons a victim will stay in an abusive relationship. Known as economic abuse, it is one of the eight abusive behaviors found on the Power and Control Wheel created by the Domestic Abuse Intervention Projects (DAIP).
Lindsay Christopher, Housing Program Manager with Violence Free Colorado, confirms, “The issues of DV and homelessness are inextricably linked. There is a strong relationship in many aspects; rather inadequate housing, shelter options, evictions, discrimination, or poverty. All of those factors contribute to the survivors’ housing instability. A lot of times it has to do with the police being called. Sometimes it’s a lack of finances because the abuser was the main breadwinner.”
When asked if the eviction was linked with economic abuse, Christopher replied, “Absolutely. Financial abuse is all about power and control, who has access to finances or money when they need it. It can also have long-term impacts on survivors; it can impair their credit to where they may not be able to access safe housing in the future.”
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month (DVAM) and advocates use the month to honor victims who have died, celebrate survivors plus educate others on abuse. DV can happen to any person; there is no social status, economic level, or culture that is immune. Ruth M. Glenn, President, and CEO of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), is a survivor herself. With a Masters’ in Public Administration from U.C. Denver, she uses her experience as a victim to speak nationally, provide consultations and perform training. She is committed to using her personal experience as a survivor and regularly testifies before the U.S. Congress and CO. legislation hearings.
”Oftentimes, women become homeless because of DV. And they certainly can feel and get into a mindset, because they’re unhoused. In other words, they become prey to an abusive person. They connect with that abusive person because of being unhealthy and certainly can experience more violence as a result of that.”
Victims often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which is another factor in homelessness. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) explains, “Research has shown that traumatic experiences are associated with both behavioral health and chronic physical health conditions, especially those traumatic events that occur during childhood. Substance use (e.g., smoking, excessive alcohol use, and taking drugs), mental health conditions (e.g., depression, anxiety, or PTSD), and other risky behaviors (e.g., self-injury and risky sexual encounters) have been linked with traumatic experiences.”
Lack of finances, loss of medical insurance, or a strict working schedule can prevent a victim from receiving the medical treatment needed to recover. Without help, the victim can get stuck in a vicious cycle of getting triggered, acting out, loss of employment, no income, and losing their housing. Recovery time varies from person to person and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) informs us that expecting recovery from trauma in a short time is unrealistic.
DV does not just occur to women, and trauma is not only experienced by the victim. Men can also be abused and the National Domestic Violence Hotline (NDVH) affirms, “One in 10 men has experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking.”
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports teenagers to experience dating violence, which includes cyberbullying and revenge porn.
Vicarious trauma, also known as Secondary Traumatic Stress, is described by the Office of Victims of Crime (OVC) as, “…the natural consequent behaviors and emotions resulting from knowing about a traumatizing event experienced by another…the stress resulting from helping or wanting to help a traumatized or suffering person.”
As for children who grow up in a home with domestic violence, the Office on Women’s Health reports, “Children exposed to violence in the home are also victims of physical abuse. Children who witness DV or are victims of abuse themselves are at serious risk for long-term physical and mental health problems. Children who witness violence between parents may also be at greater risk of being violent in their future relationships. It is not uncommon for an adult to experience trauma or have mental health issues from the abuse they experienced or witnessed as a child.”
Aside from trauma, Glenn is aware of how more at-risk victims become once they lose their housing. “My biggest concern when it comes to those who are experiencing DV and homelessness is, those who are being perpetrated against because they are unhoused.”
Glenn’s concern is real. In 2020, Denver Police Department (DPD) and Environmental Health Services (EHS) began an aggressive campaign with “sweeps” of homeless encampments in Denver. As DPD supervised, EHS began seizing, destroying and disposing of personal items, including tents and sleeping bags. Anything deemed abandoned on public property. Unhoused advocates claim this is a violation of the Fourth Amendment and therefore unconstitutional.
In the 2021 report “Homelessness in Denver”, by the Department of Housing Stability (HOST), Denver Parks and Recreation, Department of Transportation and Infrastructure (DOTI), and Denver Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), “sweeps” are done due to concern with public health. Page 32 of the report claims, “we support Citywide efforts by removing trash, cleaning sidewalks, streets and other rights-of-ways, including sanitization, when necessary and facilitating no-cost storage of personal belongings, including unattended personal belongings that do not pose a public health or safety risk.”
Homeless advocates have witnessed the opposite. Ean Tafoya, Founder of Headwaters Protectors (HP), a non-profit organization providing compassionate water and trash services to the unhoused, has been present during several “sweeps”. His observation on the treatment of personal belongings is concerning. “I certainly think the homeless sweeps is a violation of human rights and abuse. I really tried to work diligently to rebrand this abuse as traumatic displacement because they aren’t just people who lose their belongings, they lose their community. Sometimes they lose very important documents that they need. So many of the aftermaths of these displacements, Headwaters Protectors have found IDs, medications, things that people desperately need probably to move forward with their lives.”
Loss of identification and documentation creates a huge barrier for a DV victim to obtain safe housing or needed services. Glenn states, “I would say that it is further harmful, particularly when you’re talking about documents that can get them safer, right? For instance, a protection order, their birth certificate and court documents. They may have gone to court for a protection order and had an adequate path in life. You can set up visitation with your kids, whether a system needs to see the work or not, the victim NEEDS to have that paperwork. But when they do these sweeps, it can certainly be unsettling. Add on to the trauma, and you put them at further risk, because they don’t have what they need to find their safety.”
Independent journalist, John Staughton, attends and documents most “sweeps”. His research has been found in articles of the Denverite and he often uses social media to post his documentations. He shares, “The contractor looks at the pile of junk on the ground, calling it garbage. But they (unhoused) might still want to go back and find that one last backpack that has all their documents in it, or they want to find that coffee cup or that special box of their father’s ashes. People look at all their stuff like trash, but THEY know what is trash. It can be a dirty, grimy life on the street. It’s a filthy place because you’re next to a road and stuff gets dirty. They know what they want, and often in the chaos and the tumult of the sweep, they lose those things. And they aren’t necessarily allowed to go find them or look through their piles of perceived garbage, for what might actually be quite valuable.”
Another barrier a “sweep” creates for unhoused DV victims is restricting access to needed resources. Cornelius states, “I was told by three different officers that if anybody goes into the new permanent sweeps area, they will get one warning. And then they’re not going to the ticket, they’re going to go right to arrest. And one of my concerns is that Urban Peak has been in that area.”
Urban Peak is a non-profit known to provide services for youth experiencing homelessness.
Ana continues, “We’re talking about homeless youth. People who are physically disabled, who have medical conditions, and have to stay close to the South Street Health Center. Folks who have mental health and substance abuse issues, people who are trying to stay connected to case management, doing what we asked them to, and we’re punishing them.”
A big concern regarding “sweeps” of unhoused DV victims is that the city’s main resource for safe housing is a 10-14 day voucher at a local hotel.
Christopher states, “Vulnerable populations, or folks that are part of a marginalized community, are probably going to have higher needs and unique barriers versus folks that do not have those marginalized identities. Hotel vouchers are a short-term solution to what needs to be a longer-term strategy. So if the strategy was, we’re going to do a sweep, and then when the sweep takes place, we’re going to put you in a hotel for 14 nights, and then what? Unless there’s housing support, services and navigation for folks that want that, then a 14-day hotel stay or 14 night motel stay is a band-aid. It is not a bridge to a longer-term solution.”
Katy Miller, the Regional Coordinator for the US Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH), agrees, “In Denver, that two-week hotel stay requires them to give up their tents and their safety and survival gear. That can be very dangerous for people. And so, if they go into a hotel for two weeks, and they’re exiting onto the streets again, that can be concerning because they have lost their sleeping bag, their tent or anything that is sort of keeping them warm and safe. So, those are things to really consider. If they’re going into a hotel, and they’re receiving intensive services to help them connect either to a more permanent shelter or to more permanent housing, then that’s different, but if they’re going into a hotel and then going right back to the streets, then it can really set people back.“
Another concern regarding DV victims being “swept” is the act itself can re-traumatize victims. Every time a victim is physically approached, verbally confronted, has their belongings taken, and/or is displaced, it affects their mental well-being. The aggressive behavior displayed by DPD or EHS can be a huge trigger, leading a victim into feeling they are with their abuser once again.
Glenn states, “The first thing that comes to mind is PTSD. It’s very much like when you have chaos around you and loud noise disarray that throws you right back into trauma. It’s very harmful because it’s reliving the situation and they’re being reminded. It really triggers you and sends you into another reliving of the experience. You would see anyone with PTSD as becoming erratic. Trying to keep hold of their stuff. If somebody is messing with that, that can be very, very unsettling. It is ‘fight or flight’. If you feel like you’re in danger, you’re going to respond as though you’re in danger. It really is that simple.”
DV victims can also be triggered if they feel they are being stalked, harassed or targeted during a “sweep”. Cornelius shared a situation that included intimidation. “Another trend that I have seen that I think is problematic, is when people leave from a sweep, we have seen on occasion where DPD has followed the people. They follow them to the next one, then tell them to leave. Some state that it is illegal to exist anywhere in the city and county of Denver. So where are people supposed to go? If you’re saying that you don’t want people to be, would you have the option to make them not exist? Because that’s really at the crux of what we’re saying here. These policies are rooted in genocide.”
Advocates also have concerns regarding the cost for “sweeps”. Money that could be used towards housing for DV victims who are single parents or individuals with pets is considered.
Lack of transparency from the city led Staughton to conduct his own six-month investigation, which he plans to repeat for 2021. “I started attending every sweep and I would show up at 5 am with my notebook and with my spreadsheet. I would take notes of every different worker there was, and there were different people that were there. The amount of protesters, the amount of counter-protests, advocates, and mutual aid workers, whether the driver was there, like I just made a note of everything. And I did that every half hour throughout the sweep, to get an actual accurate measurement of how many man-hours and how much salary time was being spent on this operation.”
His research estimates a regular cost of each “sweep” at $21,000. The disregard of the request for financial accountability from constituents may be perceived as economic abuse by some.
Ana agrees there is a form of exploitation, as the city seems to focus more on paying individuals to perform “sweeps” rather than pay for a long-term solution. “These people are trafficking because somebody is making money, right? The movement of people for profit is human trafficking and slavery.”
In the 2020 “Annual Homeless Assessment Report” (AHAR), produced by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), homelessness increased nationwide for the fourth consecutive year in a row. The increase came from the amount of unsheltered homeless. “Between 2019 and 2020, the number of people counted in unsheltered locations rose by seven percent or 14,787 people.”
Despite the reports of “Housing First” as the best approach to ending homelessness, city officials continue to enforce “sweeps”. As a result, CO. is at 37% of chronically homeless individuals, which is higher than the national average. Currently, CO. is the top third state with the largest increase of chronically unhoused.
USICH claims four communities have successfully ended chronic homelessness, all using the “Housing First” approach.
Erik Amundson, Deputy Regional Director with HUD, confirms, “I think one of the underlying factors is housing affordability. That’s a pretty common one of the underlying factors, access to affordable housing. And so as an agency, that’s one of our priorities.” Regarding “sweeps”, Amundson replied, “It is definitely a real challenge. I just want to emphasize that the federal government doesn’t have any involvement in local sweeps. It is a real challenge because just as we all know, people do need documentation when applying for resources when applying for assistance. And so without that, it makes it even more challenging or more of a lengthy process. So, it is a real concern. HUD was not involved in any of the sweeps and our funding was not used for that either. It is a real concern. That’s something being addressed, and it has to be addressed.”
Miller concludes, “It’s really important to educate everyone, especially those people who have investments and are involved in policy. Housing has to be the number one priority, and homelessness will not be solved unless the issue of affordable housing is addressed. Homelessness will continue to go up unless we address this and we’re very urgently bringing the services and the housing together to help people stabilize. That is something that the community needs to get involved in. So often we see in communities where people say, I don’t want to see poverty and I don’t want to see homelessness, but then they protest having affordable housing or shelters or services in their neighborhood. You can’t have both. And that’s the same with elected leaders. You cannot have both; you have to fully embrace the need to provide safe and effective solutions for people who are experiencing homelessness.”