The Uneasy Impact of Denver’s Urban Camping Ban, St. Francis Center

From the St. Francis Center.

A ban on unauthorized camping, approved by Denver city council in May and going into effect on June 4, has definitely impacted the lives of many St. Francis Center guests, and not for the better.

The law prohibits individuals from sleeping or sitting in any type of makeshift “shelter” with the intention of “dwelling” there.

“If it’s a blanket or cardboard or newspapers, that’s ‘shelter.’ Clothing is not,” said Layla de Steffany, a member of the Denver Police Department’s Homeless Outreach program. “And there has to be some evidence that they’re living there. Maybe all their stuff is there, or they’re there every day. Every situation is different.”

Denver police have agreed not to arrest those charged under the camping ban, but rather to assist them in finding appropriate shelter for the night. But available shelter beds continue to fall short of the need, despite city assurances that more resources will be made available.

St. Francis Center Executive Director Tom Luehrs notes that the 16th Street Mall is now pretty much clear of campers. But comparing the numbers from the summer of 2011 to the numbers of this summer, there are 200 to 225 more men staying at the Crossroads Salvation Army Shelter, 100 more men using the overflow shelter at the Denver Rescue Mission, and 45 more women using church shelters.

“Despite these increases, we have no new overnight shelters for teens, families, couples, or single men and women,” Tom said. “Outreach workers are seeing more people hiding in alleys, behind bushes, and going even deeper into hiding. 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.”

St. Francis Center guests also report there are more people camping in secluded areas of Commerce City and south Denver and under highway bridges. They no longer have tents or even sleeping bags because they have had to move quickly from other locations.

“Where’s everybody going to go? What do they want us to do, hide?” asked James Z. “If they don’t want people camping, they should provide somewhere for us to live.” He said he and his wife are already on five waiting lists for housing. Even still, James empathizes with the downtown businesses that have complained about campers not cleaning up after themselves, and he understands the reasons for the ban. “It only takes a few to spoil it for everyone else,” he said.

But others are less understanding.

“They’re not even allowing us to have blankets out,” said Deven T. “We’re considered ‘campers’ just for sitting and enjoying the park. People lie out at the beach and look that way, and nobody assumes they’re camping. What’s the difference? I got a verbal warning, just for not wanting to sit in the dirt. It’s harassment, plain and simple.”

Rik K., who camps occasionally, says he hasn’t noticed any difference in police enforcement. “Camping outside can be really uncomfortable. You have to wake up early and make sure your area gets cleaned up. You risk being beaten up or robbed, but you do what you gotta do. The alternative is dealing with the lottery at the shelters, where our anxiety goes up exponentially over whether or not there’s going to be enough room.”

Even though St. Francis Center does not provide overnight shelter, the camping ban appears to have impacted our numbers as well. In June, SFC had 3,001 individual visitors, a 27 percent increase from June 2011.

“They 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 – even though we tell them that no one has been incarcerated under the ordinance yet,” Tom said. “Many of these new visitors have serious mental illnesses and need shelter, housing and health services, all of which are in short supply.”

Tom estimates at least 300 people in Denver are still without shelter. “Most of these folks are single men, single women and some youth. They are no longer sleeping on the mall, but even if not seen, they are in need of humane treatment.”

St. Francis Center will continue to monitor the effects of the ban with particular focus on the weather turning colder and personal safety becoming a critical issue. If you would like to help, please consider a financial donation to help defray expenses created by the increase in shelter visits.

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