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May 2015 • Online Edition

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From A Reader’s Pen: Urban Camping Ban Drives Homeless Underground | Print |  E-mail

by Antony Hebblethwaite

The homeless “tell us they are afraid that if they go on the 16th Street Mall even during daylight hours that they will be put in jail,” writes Tom Luehrs, director of the St. Francis Center in their summer 2012 newsletter.

“We tell them that no one has been incarcerated under the ordinance yet.”

Fear must be working because Denver City Councilwoman Judy Montero told the Health, Safety, Education & Services committee that “we all know how effective it has been on the mall.” Prior to the ban, the 16th Street Mall served as a well-lit and patrolled place for the homeless to sleep between the hours of 9p.m.-7a.m.

The committee met Tues., Oct. 9, to receive an update from the Denver Police Department and Denver’s Road Home about the progress of the new ordinance targeting the homeless with criminal sanctions for sleeping anywhere in the City of Denver with any coverings or belongings other than the clothes on their body.

DPD Commander Antonio Lopez reported that there have been no arrests made under the new Sec. 38-86.2. of the Denver Municipal Code. Unfortunately, arrest statistics don’t tell the whole story. This ordinance gives the DPD unprecedented power to stop the homeless. Between June 1 and September 30 there were 158 street checks for unauthorized camping impacting 386 members of the homeless community.

The ordinance is designed to create a climate of fear among the homeless. When Downtown Denver Partnership President Tamara Door testified before Denver City Council, she said consequences were needed “for those who refuse assistance and continue to engage in behaviors that threaten public safety and health.” Driven from the safety of the mall, the homeless not only face greater risk of violence, but now potential harassment from law enforcement.

“Outreach workers are seeing more people hiding in alleys, behind bushes, and going deeper into hiding,” Luehrs writes. “We have reports from neighbors and other citizens of people sleeping on their property, in their alleys, and behind dumpsters where they hope not to be seen.”

This is precisely what Council-woman Susan Shepherd feared as she challenged her colleagues about the proposed ordinance. “People who spend a large part of their lives in fear may be spending even more time in fear at the possibility of tangling with the law as the result of this ordinance. They may hide or disappear to dispersed areas of the city where we are even less likely to be able to reach them with services – and our overall efforts may actually decline.”

Even Councilman Albus Brooks,  lead sponsor of the ordinance acknowledges that the ban is complicating the work of outreach workers. He told Westword recently, “Some of the folks are hiding a lot better. They are not in sight. I think that’s the unfortunate piece about this. It’s making our outreach workers work that much more ... to locate where people are.”

It is important to note that the “Urban Camping” ban was not an attempt to make good public policy, but a quick solution to serve the individual interests of Denver’s 16th Street business community who felt the presence of the homeless downtown harmed them economically. If it had been about addressing the underlying causes of homelessness, Mayor Hancock and Councilman Brooks would have consulted the Denver Homeless Commission before introducing the ordinance before City Council.

The ordinance originated in the Downtown Denver Partnership to supersede Sec. 38-86.1. of the Denver Municipal Code, that provided homeless people a safe sanctuary in downtown between the hours of 9p.m.-7a.m. The police statistics provided to councilmembers on Oct. 9 show that the largest number of street checks for unauthorized camping occurred in downtown (45) and along the South Platte River (67). As the homeless could no longer sleep in the downtown area, they moved to the South Platte River and police “sweeps” followed them there.

As ordinances criminalizing homelessness have multiplied in the United States, experts like the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, National Coalition for the Homeless and United States Interagency on Homelessness have provided extensive guidance to cities about compassionate, justice-based alternatives to criminalization. Targeting the homeless with criminal sanctions places an already vulnerable community at greater risk and complicates efforts to help individuals find their way out of homelessness. It also violates international human rights standards. Rhode Island is fighting the trend and passed the nation’s first Homeless Bill of Rights in June, which states that the homeless have the right to be free from harassment by law enforcement.

“Where’s everybody going to go?” said James Z., a guest at the St. Francis Center. “What do they want us to do, hide? If they don’t want people camping, they should provide somewhere for us to live.”

The ordinance was introduced into City Council with promises that it would help connect the homeless to shelters and services. At the time, shelters were already at capacity and more than 2,000 individuals who are homeless and mentally ill were on the waiting list for mental health services at the Stout Street Clinic. During the ordinance debate, Colorado Coalition for the Homeless Director John Parvensky told the Denver Post, “It is even more inhumane to make [homelessness] illegal while acknowledging that there is not sufficient shelter or housing alternatives.”

Five months after the passage of the ordinance, there are plans for a 24-hour shelter but the immediate shelter situation remains unchanged. Statistics presented by Denver’s Road Home to councilmembers put the crisis in focus. Shelter occupancy rates at Salvation Army’s Crossroads and the Denver Rescue Mission overnight shelters have increased from about 75 percent to 108 percent of capacity from April 2012 to September 2012. The Delores Project for single women is consistently at full capacity. The numbers for youth shelters were conspicuously missing from the data. Denver’s Road Home issues motel vouchers to 70 percent of people who request them to pick up the slack. “Despite these increases, we have no new overnight shelters for teens, families, couples, or single men and women,” writes Luehrs. He estimates there are at least 300 people in Denver without shelter.

With the winter approaching, this should be of deep concern. Denver Road Home Director Bennie Milliner made assurances that anyone who requests shelter will be provided a bed. Councilman Brooks expects that the city will announce a new shelter for the winter months soon.

Denver Homeless Out Loud is a coalition of Denver residents and organizations working hand-in-hand with and for the homeless to challenge their criminalization in our city. To learn about our work and to watch the City Council meeting referenced in this article, visit DenverHomelessOutLoud.org.

(Editor’s note: Antony Hebblethwaite is a member of DenverHomelessOutLoud.org. Refer to denverpost.com/news/ci_21884660/services-offset-denver-camping-ban-yet-be-delivered for further recent coverage of this issue.)
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