Den­ver might let the home­less camp any­where

The News-Times - - NEWS -

DEN­VER — Jerry Burton has lived in a rapidly gen­tri­fy­ing neigh­bor­hood here for the past few months, in an orange tent pitched on a side­walk.

He and the other home­less campers on the block — Burton proudly calls the en­camp­ment “Jerr-E-Ville,” and has de­clared him­self the un­of­fi­cial mayor — are de­fy­ing the city’s ur­ban camp­ing ban, which means they are al­ways brac­ing for a visit from the po­lice.

A case­worker from the U.S. Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs is try­ing to find per­ma­nent hous­ing for the 57-year-old Marine Corps vet­eran whose tent is sur­rounded by his be­long­ings neatly ar­ranged in small plas­tic bags.

In the mean­time, Burton is hop­ing that Den­ver vot­ers next week will over­turn the city’s camp­ing ban, thanks to an ini­tia­tive he and oth­ers pe­ti­tioned to get on the bal­lot.

The bal­lot ques­tion, dubbed the “Right to Sur­vive,” would de­clare that ev­ery­one has the right to rest, eat and shel­ter in pub­lic places with­out be­ing ha­rassed. Sup­port­ers say it would shield people ex­pe­ri­enc­ing home­less­ness from un­fair ci­ta­tions and ar­rests.

But busi­ness, en­vi­ron­men­tal and so­cial ser­vice or­ga­ni­za­tions fear it would pro­lif­er­ate dan­ger­ous en­camp­ments in parks and on side­walks with­out help­ing to house people.

“I find Ini­tia­tive 300 to be one of the most frightenin­g and heinous ini­tia­tives that I’ve wit­nessed in my ca­reer,” said Jeff Shoe­maker, a for­mer Repub­li­can state rep­re­sen­ta­tive and ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Green­way Foun­da­tion, a non­profit that works to re­vi­tal­ize the South Platte River and its trib­u­taries.

The Den­ver ini­tia­tive is the lat­est front in a cam­paign that ad­vo­cates for home­less people have been wag­ing at the state level for years. Law­mak­ers in Cal­i­for­nia, Ore­gon and Colorado have re­peat­edly in­tro­duced bills that, by ar­tic­u­lat­ing a “right to rest,” would over­ride lo­cal or­di­nances that pe­nal­ize people for living in pub­lic spa­ces.

Law­mak­ers in Wash­ing­ton state pro­posed sim­i­lar leg­is­la­tion this year. None of the bills passed.

So Den­ver Home­less Out Loud, an ad­vo­cacy group that backed the Colorado leg­is­la­tion, de­cided to take the is­sue to vot­ers. If the first-of-its-kind “Right to Sur­vive” bal­lot ini­tia­tive is suc­cess­ful — a late Jan­uary/ early Fe­bru­ary poll taken by the op­po­si­tion cam­paign sug­gested it could be ap­proved — its sup­port­ers are likely to try to pass sim­i­lar ini­tia­tives else­where in Colorado and across the West.

“If it passes, we hope­fully may not have to run an­other statewide ini­tia­tive,” said Demo­cratic Rep. Jo­van Mel­ton, spon­sor of the Colorado Right to Rest bill. “We may be able to go just city by city to deal with this.”

About 552,000 people in the United States are living on the street, in emer­gency shel­ters or in tran­si­tional hous­ing, ac­cord­ing to the lat­est count from the U.S. Depart­ment of Hous­ing and Ur­ban De­vel­op­ment. Most people ex­pe­ri­enc­ing home­less­ness are clus­tered in ex­pen­sive ci­ties such as New York, Los An­ge­les and Seat­tle.

Ci­ties nationwide have laws on the books in­tended to keep des­ti­tute people mov­ing and out of sight. One-third of 187 ci­ties sur­veyed by the Na­tional Law Cen­ter on Home­less­ness and Poverty, a Wash­ing­ton, D.C., non­profit, pro­hibit camp­ing in pub­lic. About a quar­ter of ci­ties sur­veyed pro­hibit sleep­ing in cer­tain pub­lic places, and al­most half pro­hibit sit­ting or ly­ing down in pub­lic.

Even if a per­son is just sit­ting out­side or sleep­ing in a clean tent, they can be told to ei­ther move on or be is­sued a fine, said Tris­tia Bau­man, a se­nior at­tor­ney at the law cen­ter.

“Even those ac­tiv­i­ties are treated as pub­lic health and safety threats, when they are not.”

The Den­ver City Coun­cil in 2012 passed an ur­ban camp­ing or­di­nance that pro­hibits people from pitch­ing tarps and tents or even cov­er­ing them­selves with a blan­ket in pub­lic places.

Other city or­di­nances ban ag­gres­sive pan­han­dling, pub­lic uri­na­tion, and sit­ting or ly­ing down in a pub­lic right of way, among other ac­tiv­i­ties.

Other Colorado ci­ties have passed sim­i­lar laws, said Nan­tiya Ruan, a law pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of Den­ver Sturm Col­lege of Law. “In our largest ci­ties, we dis­pro­por­tion­ately cite and jail those who are home­less for these types of or­di­nances, and it costs the city a lot of money to do so,” she said.

But en­force­ment is spotty. Den­ver po­lice of­fi­cers typ­i­cally tell people vi­o­lat­ing the camp­ing ban to move rather than throw­ing them in jail. Un­der the or­di­nance, po­lice of­fi­cers are re­quired to give of­fend­ers a warn­ing and try to con­nect them to as­sis­tance, such as ad­dic­tion treat­ment, be­fore mak­ing an ar­rest.

The camp­ing ban still has an ef­fect, said Terese Howard, an or­ga­nizer for Den­ver Home­less Out Loud.

“The im­pact is a lot of sleep de­pri­va­tion, it’s a lot of stress and men­tal health strug­gle, for con­stantly not know­ing where you can go; it’s phys­i­cal health prob­lems,” she said. “It’s safety risks, people be­ing raped and as­saulted af­ter be­ing forced to move into un­safe ar­eas.”

Many people have no choice but to sleep out­side, Howard said, be­cause the city of Den­ver doesn’t have enough shel­ter beds for the es­ti­mated 3,445 people who need them.

Even when beds are avail­able, they’re not open to ev­ery­one. People can’t en­ter shel­ters when they have al­co­hol or drugs with them. And some people don’t want to stay in a noisy, crowded shel­ter, sep­a­rated from their part­ner and their pets.

Julie Smith, di­rec­tor of mar­ket­ing and com­mu­nity ser­vices for the Den­ver Hu­man Ser­vices Depart­ment, said there’s suf­fi­cient space in city shel­ters to han­dle de­mand.

The Den­ver An­i­mal Shel­ter can tem­po­rar­ily shel­ter pets and at least one city shel­ter will take people regardless of sub­stance abuse, she said.

Sit­ting in the sun­shine out­side Im­pact Hu­man­ity, a Den­ver store that gives away clothes, a young man with sandy hair who de­clined to share his name said he’s been home­less for two years and prefers to sleep out­side in good weather.

On win­ter nights, he said, home­less people may have to tres­pass to curl up in a shel­tered place, such as an aban­doned stair­well. “I no­tice a lot of people who freeze to death — you can’t just throw up a tent and all the gear it takes to stay warm,” he said.

Deb­bie Hy­att, 67, was also wait­ing for her turn to en­ter the store. She sat un­der an awning that cast a cool shadow on the pave­ment, shap­ing her nails with a pink nail file. She said she sleeps in a shel­ter now but slept on the side­walk for a while af­ter get­ting bed­bugs from a shel­ter mat­tress.

Sleep­ing out­side isn’t ideal for any­body, she said. And it could be safer. “There needs to be a des­ig­nated ground area,” she said, pro­tected from dan­gers such as cars skid­ding off the curb.

The Na­tional Law Cen­ter on Home­less­ness and Poverty and other le­gal aid groups have suc­cess­fully sued var­i­ous ci­ties to change poli­cies that dis­pro­por­tion­ately af­fect people ex­pe­ri­enc­ing home­less­ness.

For in­stance, Den­ver re­cently pledged to give home­less people more no­tice prior to clean­ing up camps and to of­fer more stor­age lock­ers, toi­lets and trash cans as part of a set­tle­ment in a class-ac­tion law­suit brought on be­half of the city’s home­less.

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