Not-guilty pleas could send camping ban to trial
Three members of Denver’s homeless community Wednesday pleaded not guilty to violating the city’s camping ban as part of an effort to move their cases to trial and put the controversial camping prohibition under a greater legal microscope.
Jerry Burton, Terese Howard and Randy Russell are the first to enter not guilty pleas on charges of violating the ban since it was put in place more than four years ago. They were ticketed on Nov. 28 after they set up camp near Coors Field and on a sidewalk in front of the City and County Building.
Some of their belongings — such as tents and blankets — were confiscated by Denver police and are being temporarily held as evidence.
That fact was seized upon by their attorney, Jason Flores-Williams, who called the move by the city an “interesting end-run” around due process for his clients.
“This is a proven example of criminalization of the poor,” Flores-Williams said after Wednesday morning’s hearing. “People aren’t supposed to be punished for it, but they are being punished for it.”
Amber Miller, a spokeswoman for Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, said police only seized the belongings after asking the trio for six hours to move off the sidewalk. She said the city is reluctant to issue camping ban tickets — only 26 tickets have been issued since the ban went into effect in 2012 — and “is not a widespread approach the city takes.”
“Every step that the city takes — and our No. 1 goal — is to connect people experiencing homelessness with services and a place indoors that is safe and warm,” Miller said. “All (the officers) were working towards was compliance.”
Miller said Burton, Russell and Howard were part of an organized protest that evening and noted that the city provides hundreds of beds for the homeless every night. She said on Tuesday night this week, there were 200 available beds for people to use.
But Russell said the shelters in Denver have “300-plus men coughing all over you — with their germs.”
Howard, who is a member of advocacy group Denver Homeless Out Loud, said she hopes the cases in which she and the others entered not-guilty pleas will lead to a closer examination of the overall legality of Denver’s camping ban.
“I think times have changed,” she said.
Members of Homeless Out Loud sued Denver in federal court in August, accusing the city of clearing downtown of the poor and displaced by conducting sweeps of homeless encampments to make way for new housing and economic development. There has been no ruling in that case.
Hancock earlier this month said that police will no longer confiscate blankets and tents from homeless people during cold weather months.
Howard, Russell and Burton are scheduled for a hearing Jan. 12 to set a date for trial.