The Denver homeless community says little has improved for them after more than a decade of living under Denver’s urban camping ban, which broadly prohibits people from using tents or tarps to create shelter on public property.
Mayor Michael Hancock formally signed the Camping Ban Act into law on May 17, 2012, sponsored by creating a “light touch” enforcement mechanism to encourage people experiencing homelessness to move to shelters and accept services rather than sleeping on the street. However, city data combined with testimonies of homeless people about Denver shows that the law has done little to encourage shelter use, and even less to promote an environment conducive to homelessness.
“Looking back at the past 10 years of camping ban enforcement data confirms what we know from the streets — this law aims to harass and criminalize people for being visible and homeless,” said Therese Howard, founder of the nonprofit Housekeys Action Network Denver. “There is no ‘carrot at the end of the stick’ – it is just a stick for the city to treat the homeless people in our society as criminals.”
source of contention
Denver’s camping ban has been a source of contention between city leaders and the Homeless Services Network since the law was passed. Hancock praised the city council for passing the bill, which he called at the time a “bold and necessary step forward” toward keeping Denver healthy and safe.
“This law will allow us to continue our compassionate and comprehensive work of connecting those in need with vital services and making them self-sufficient,” Hancock said. statment to the Denver Business Journal. “It also allows us to maintain operability and livability in our vibrant city.”
Data from the Denver Police Department shows that the city has firmly enforced a ban on urban camping since the bill was also passed. The agency has made more than 27,000 contacts with homeless people in connection with unauthorized camping since June 2012. The data showed that more than three-quarters of these contacts occurred over a four-year period between 2015 and 2019.
The data also shows Denver has loosened its enforcement during the pandemic. The city checked 1,197 streets for unauthorized camping, the lowest total recorded since 2014, according to the data. For comparison, Denver conducted more than 2,500 street checks in 2019 before the pandemic began.
Mayor Hancock also doubled down on his support for the law. On several occasions, Hancock said the city will continue to enforce the law as it seeks to expand indoor shelters and comprehensive services for the homeless.
Hancock said during a press conference in New shelter on 48th Street. last summer.
But some Denver providers say the camping ban has made their job more difficult. Vinny Cervantes, organizational director of the Denver Street Health Response Alliance (DASHR), which provides medical services for people experiencing homelessness, told the Denver Voice that the camping ban makes it “impossible” to stay in contact with homeless people.
“Policy and its enforcement have wasted millions of taxpayer dollars to make the problem worse by inflicting violence against vulnerable communities, exacerbating traumas, and creating more barriers to self-determination for the uninhabited,” Cervantes said. “Ten years later, the city has learned nothing from its harmful and violent approach to homelessness.”
“Never in my life have I felt the shock of being in Denver.”
People experiencing homelessness in Denver have been telling their elected officials about the effects of the urban camping ban since the bill was passed, but their stories have largely gone unheeded at City Hall.
Denver Homeless Out Loud, a non-profit human rights advocacy organization, first Survey Members of the Denver homeless community about the ban in 2013. In the survey, more than 62 percent of respondents said that access to city shelters had deteriorated after the camping ban was imposed. Another 60 percent said their sleep quality had also worsened.
The organization conducted a Similar survey in August 2021 which showed that these sentiments remained largely unchanged. The survey found that only six of the 150 people surveyed ended up in housing after the homeless incursion. And 54.5 percent of survey respondents said that raids prevented them from finding safe places to sleep.
“As we move forward a year after the settlement was concluded, we must listen to the experience and input of people directly affected by these policies in order to guide city practices and live up to the agreed goal,” the 2021 survey said. .
During a public comment session before the regular city council meeting on May 9, more than 50 activists and people experiencing homelessness shared their testimony about how the urban camping ban affected them. Some shared stories of displacement from family and friends. Others told stories of personal grief and loss, including one woman who spoke of two miscarriages on the streets of Denver due to the stress of homelessness.
Despite the diversity of experiences, the common theme among the stories was that the ban on urban camping made it difficult for people to survive after losing their homes. However, only one city council member – Candy CdeBaca from District 9 – heard the testimony while the other 12 members left council rooms after the public comment period extended beyond the 5:30 p.m. deadline.
“I’ve been homeless for a while, and in multiple cities, but never in my life have I suffered the trauma that I experienced in Denver,” Alex Hand told the City Council before most council members left. “We don’t have many reliable shelters that give information on how to get back on your feet again.”
City leaders have consistently claimed that the camping ban is intended to help connect homeless people to services, a claim that can be backed up with data from the Homeless Management Information System, a federal database that tracks individual contacts with local homeless services.
More than 32,000 people received homeless services last year, which is a 3 percent increase from 2020, according to the 2021 State of Homelessness Report from the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative.
However, the camping ban appears to have done little to inspire people to seek shelter because the number of people experiencing homelessness has increased dramatically since its passage. The number of homeless people increased from 671 in 2014 to more than 1,561 in 2020, the last year the homeless census was taken for the PIT, according to federal data.
Some of the homeless say that living under the camping ban has only served to keep them hidden rather than seeking services or shelter.
“What I and the others are up against is completely unreasonable and illegal,” Chris Padilla, who is homeless due to medical issues, told the city council on May 9. So I don’t get killed there.”
The first step forward?
There is an old Chinese proverb usually attributed to Lao Tzu, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Some members of Denver’s homeless community say the urban camping ban is preventing the city from taking the first step toward solving the homelessness problem.
“We can’t have a ban on camping and be a decent community,” Howard said. “Whether it’s through the courts, repealing the law, or any other means, the camping ban has to go.”
Lawmakers and advocates in the Denver homeless community have tried to relax the camping ban on several occasions. For example, former state representative Govan Melton introduced a bill in four consecutive legislative sessions between 2016 and 2019 that is colloquially known as the “Colorado Right to Rest Act.” It sought to codify basic human rights for the homeless, such as the right to rest and to move freely in public without discrimination. But the bill was defeated each time it was introduced.
The homeless community also sponsored an ordinance begun in 2019 known as Initiative 300 that sought to codify the Denver Homeless Rights Act. But the initiative was defeated by a lobby group called Together Denver, which raised more than $2.4 million from companies such as the Colorado Rockies, the National Association of Realtors, and Visit Denver — an arm of the city’s tourism office.
Howard said the defeat of these initiatives also prevented the homeless from having reasonable access to restrooms, clean water, garbage services and other basic needs that the city provides for its residents who can afford housing.
Denver has opened new public restrooms at the intersection of Champa Street and 16th St. Mall last year. There are groups such as Headwaters Protectors that provide garbage services to homeless camps. However, Howard said these services are only the tip of the iceberg. Howard said Denver still needs to invest more in affordable housing and work to make housing an attainable public infrastructure for all income levels.
“After 10 years of banning camping, not all the promises made have been fulfilled,” Howard said. People are still not attached to services, and people are criminalized and put in prison more than housing. Let’s be realistic, it’s time to take a new approach.”