Note: this proposed position statement will be voted upon by voting members of the Denver Green Party during the week of August 25. We are asking for your feedback. To become a voting member, visit the Membership page.
The Denver City Council passed the Urban Camping Ban (UCB) in May, 2012, by a vote of 9 to 4 with claims to those opposing the ban it would help in providing services to those who needed it. Bill sponsor Councilman Albus Brooks, in an email to the Associated Press, said it “is a commitment of services that would have not been there otherwise.”
Nowhere in the language of the ordinance, however, is anything mentioned regarding improvement of services for the homeless. The ordinance reads:
It be shall be unlawful for any person to camp upon any private [or public] property without the express written consent of the property owner or the owner’s agent, and only in such locations where camping may be conducted in accordance with any other applicable city law.
“Camp” means to reside or dwell temporarily in a place, with shelter. The term “shelter” includes, without limitation, any tent, tarpaulin, lean-to, sleeping bag, bedroll, blankets, or any form of cover or protection from the elements other than clothing. The term “reside or dwell” includes, without limitation, conducting such activities as eating, sleeping, or the storage of personal possessions.
The penalty for violating the ordinance is a fine up to $999 and a year in jail.
In April, 2012, ACLU wrote a letter to the Denver City Council (part of which follows) saying the measure criminalizes homelessness.
“ACLU of Colorado finds the Ordinance mean spirited. Simply put, the Ordinance criminalizes homelessness in open view. Arguments to the contrary are simply false and statements to the effect the Ordinance does ‘not endorse arrests’ ignore the plain language of the ordinance…”
Maria Foscarinis, Executive Director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty: “This is exactly not the way that cities and governments should be responding to homelessness.”
During tense discussion at the Council Meeting when the ordinance was approved, homeless advocates said the ordinance effectively criminalizes the act of being homeless and asked that the vote be delayed. John Parvensky, president of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless commented, stating if Denver’s shelters are full “then essentially you are criminalizing the status of being homeless. People cannot avoid violating the law unless they stay awake all the time or leave Denver.” He went on to say that Denver has 300-500 more homeless people than shelters can accommodate on any given night.
The four council members who voted against the bill (Paul Lopez, Susan Shepherd, Robin Kniech, and Debbie Ortega) did not want it approved without proper services and shelter space available. Councilwoman Ortega reported there were fewer beds in 2012 than when Denver’s Road Home plan (a 10-year plan to eliminate chronic homelessness) started in 2004 and that Denver’s coroner had reported more than 425 homeless people had died on the streets or from homeless-related causes over the prior seven years. Councilwoman Shepherd called the vote a “great injustice and tragedy that we are about to commit in the name of compassion.”
Denver Police Chief Robert White stated he expected police to have a “light touch” and that arrests would occur only as a last resort. Mayor Michael Hancock later issued a statement that the bill was “a bold and necessary step forward to help ensure highest level of health and safety of our entire city.”
Councilman Albus Brooks commented that night: “Tonight was not about winners or losers, it was about beginning a long process of providing smart services to individuals that need it most. Time and patient application, not rhetoric, will reveal the true nature of this ordinance.” He went on to say that no one will be arrested or cited if they say they want services and none are available. The ban is the first step. He continued “It’s been really frustrating for this to turn into a class war, and a fight when we should be coming together,” he said to jeers of the crowed. “We disagree. That’s OK. But we should be coming together around the people who are about to sleep outside and have no other choice.”
Now, more than two years after the Urban Camping Ban was passed, it appears that all those on the Council voting for the ban have been giving us is rhetoric. It is not clear how much money and/or effort has been put forth by Denver to address the concerns the Urban Camping Ban supposedly put in place to address. But at the June 23, 2014, meeting, just a few weeks ago, the City Council approved $1.8 million in additional police funding to add cops to downtown beats, specifically on the 16th Street Mall, LoDo, and the Ballpark neighborhood.
It appears the ban was nothing more than a way to remove the problem of homelessness from view, especially from the busy downtown areas of Civic Center Plaza and the 16th businesses supported the ban, believing the council promises. And the Downtown Denver Partnership has been an advocate for the ban even though housing is listed as one of their key areas of focus. It makes one wonder just to whom their housing focus is targeted. From their web site:
The Downtown Denver Partnership creatively plans, manages and develops Downtown Denver as the unique, diverse, vibrant and economically healthy urban core of the Rocky Mountain Region that is recognized for being prosperous, walkable, diverse, distinctive and green.
The Partnership is a leader, place-maker, convener, idea generator, facilitator, recruiter, team-builder and policy advocate. The Partnership’s key areas of focus – Leadership, Environment, Experience, Jobs, Connections and Housing (emphasis added) – are the basic, integrated elements of our organization.
The Denver Green Party is concerned that the true needs of the homeless are not being addressed. The enforcement protocol the Police Department follows has asking and providing services at the very bottom of the list.
- Officer receives a complaint or observes a camping ban violation.
- Officer enforces other violations that are observed: cites and arrests as needed.
- Medical evaluation: Are detox, hospital, or mental health services needed? If so, contact detox van, ambulance, etc.
- Determine if there is a camping ban violation.
- If there is a camping ban violation, officer issues an oral warning (“Move Along”).
- If camper refuses to comply, officer issues a written warning.
- If camper refuses to move along, evaluate need for human services.
- If services are needed, officer attempts to contact a social service outreach worker.
If camper refuses to comply with service worker, or if no outreach worker can be contact, camping ban citation or arrest may follow.
Six months after the Urban Camping Ban was passed, Denver Homeless Out Loud surveyed over 500 people experiencing homelessness about the impact of the camping ban on their lives. Tony Robinson, Ph.D. at the University of Colorado Denver, assisted providing report coordination and data analysis for the survey. At that time no tickets had been issued for the UCB. Instead people were being given tickets for other charges, especially park curfew or trespassing. Oftentimes people approached by police were simply told to ‘move on’ – but move on to where? While 72% of respondents slept outside before the ban, 64% still reported sleeping outside after the ban. Only 7% of respondents were able to get into independent housing. 37% of respondents sometimes chose not to cover themselves in the middle of winter in order not to violate the ban.
Prior to the passage of the UCB, Denver already had numerous methods and at least 10 ordinances targeting homelessness.
- Closing particular public places
- Prohibiting the obstruction of sidewalks and public places
- Prohibiting loitering in particular public places
- Prohibiting sitting or lying in particular public places
- Prohibiting aggressive panhandling
- Prohibiting begging or panhandling in particular places
- Criminalizing urinating or defecating in public
- Prohibiting spitting, failing to disperse, making improper or disturbing noise
- Prohibiting bathing in particular public waters
- Banning sleeping in particular public places
So why no tickets or arrests? It may appear it is on purpose. From web site blogs of Denver Homeless Out Loud (November 2 and 8, 2013):
One and half years after the Urban Camping Ban became law, Denver has issued at least one ticket for “unauthorized camping.” A woman who was homeless was lying with a blanket to stay warm on a rainy day. The ticket said “unlawful camping” and cited 39-7a ordinance which is a park violation prohibiting sleep in or on a blanket in the park overnight. The city attorney dismissed the charge but did not choose to add a charge for unauthorized camping (Urban Camping Ban) which would be the accurate charge. When Magistrate Mark Muller called the case his immediate response was “Unlawful camping? I didn’t think the city was filing these cases.” The city, with the support of Downtown Denver Partnership (DDP) is following a strategy of using the ban, and the threat of a ticket or arrest, to get people without houses to stay away from areas the city doesn’t want them to be in. When this doesn’t work the person is often ticketed on another charge, thus avoiding the constitutionality of the ban from being challenged in court – a challenge which the city’s attorneys have advised them (based on other cases and legal opinions nationwide) they could well lose.
There are a myriad of difficulties the homeless face and it appears Denver is not working with much focus or purpose with local organizations to help address those problems. If there is $1.8 million for additional law enforcement officers, why are there no funds for the Road Home program? Is that program effective and meeting needs (which is different than meeting goals)? It only takes a review of the DHOL survey (even the condensed version) to recognize this. http://issuu.com/denverhomelessoutloud/docs/pocketeport-web
Boycotting efforts by groups, including Occupy Denver, of downtown businesses have shed light on the fact the UCB is not a solution or even a partial remedy to homelessness. Two businesses (Snooze and The Palm) have rescinded their support of the ban. In October of last year, The Palm came out in opposition of the ban, publishing a statement that the ban is not helping people who are homeless and should be repealed or amended. (http://blogs.westword.com/latestword/2013/10/the_palm_resciends_urban_camping_ban_denver.php)
The Denver Green Party commends these decisions and asks businesses, such as the Tattered Cover that supported the ban, to understand it is not the solution and speak out so that it can be repealed. We agree with Barbara Poppe, Executive Director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness: “I am troubled that an ever-increasing number of communities are banning urban camping in response to the encampments in public spaces. There is a sad irony that Americans who are homeless and unsheltered are being displaced and their lives further disrupted at a cost to the taxpayer without solving the real problem.”
Some say the homeless are not our problem. The Denver Green Party disagrees. From the national party platform (2012) regarding Social Justice, one of the Green Party’s Ten Key Values:
The foundation of any democratic society is the guarantee that each member of society has equal rights. Respect for our constitutionally protected rights is our best defense against discrimination and the abuse of power. Also, we recognize an intimate connection between our rights as individuals and our responsibilities to our neighbors and the planet.
We call for the Denver City Council to repeal the Urban Camping Ban and take up an effort that truly addresses the needs of all of Denver, not just the businesses. The City Council has had time but we have not seen the “patient application (that) will reveal the true nature of this ordinance.” Or maybe we have seen the true nature and it is vastly different than what we were led to believe. In any case, the ban must be repealed.
Denver Post /Jeremy P. Meyer. “Denver City Council votes 9-4 to ban homeless camping.” 5/14/2012
Associated Press/Dan Elliott. “Denver council votes to make urban camping illegal.” 5/14/2012
Huffington Post. “Urban Camping Ban: ACLU Writes Letter to Denver City Council Condemning Measure,
Says It Criminalizes Homelessness.” 4/17/2012
Denver Homeless Out Loud (http://denverhomelessoutloud.org/)
Westword/Patricia Calhoun. “The Palm rescinds its support of Denver’s urban camping ordinance.” 10/