Denver might let the homeless camp anywhere
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.