By Sarah Ford in the Denver VOICE. Please purchase the Denver VOICE from vendors when you meet them on the street. Each issue is packed with excellent content.
It’s been three months since the City banned camping, sleeping and resting in public and private places in the city and county of Denver. In this time, the effects of the camping ban, which took effect on May 29, have begun to come to light. According to Melissa McKewen, spokesperson for the Salvation Army, many shelters find themselves working at full capacity on a nightly basis, and these conditions have led the City to seek options to open more shelters before winter.
“There is too much demand and not enough supply, and it is pushing people to the streets,” said Stephanie Hoing, a homeless woman who testified against the ban during a City Council hearing.
She also said many on the streets feel threatened by the prospect of receiving a citation or arrest for being found sleeping in public spaces. However, to date the Denver Police Department reports that there have been no arrests or citations directly relating to the ban.
The annual Point-In-Time study, conducted by the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative in January, five months before the ban went into effect, indicated that 964 homeless individuals were unsheltered within metropolitan Denver. According to Jamie Bradley, spokesperson for Denver’s Road Home (DRH), there are now 1,200 shelter beds available on a night-to-night basis during the summer months in Denver.
However, according to Bradley these beds include those that were previously used as overflow and emergency beds, leaving less beds available in the winter months for extreme weather conditions or emergencies.
DRH director Bennie Milliner echoed McKewin. He said shelters have been operating at 95-100 percent capacity in wake of the ban, but so far have been able to accommodate all clientele. DRH has opened additional space since the passing of the ban, including the opening of two new low-income apartment buildings. They are also in discussions with government and nonprofit facilities to open more shelters for “extraordinary weather conditions.”
Milliner said many faith-based and government facilities offered help during the winter months in case of extreme conditions. “We have not lost any shelter capacity with the current overflow plan,” he said. “We will evaluate our government and non-profit facilities, and are confident we have plans and means [to address extreme weather conditions].”
The Salvation Army’s Crossroads shelter was asked to remain in operation year-round, though it normally functions as an emergency shelter from October to April.
Crossroads generally shelters 180-200 guests a night, according to McKewen. “At this point, our focus is simply to take as many people as we can take,” she said.
She says staying open in the summer months has added a dramatic budget increase to the shelter, raising concerns about the cost of keeping it open full-time. She said the Salvation Army is working with DRH to find sources for additional funding and talking with other inter-agency shelters about the possibility of opening up more space.
Denver Rescue Mission’s Lawrence Street Shelter is another which has seen an influx of clients since the ban’s passing. The shelter offers 300 beds, with 100 normally reserved for overflow. In response to the ban, these 100 have been available for general use. According to spokeswoman Alexxa Gagner, the shelter has seen an average of 275-300 clients each night and anticipates operating at capacity every night during the winter months.
However, from the perspective of the street, there are still not enough places for people to go.
“There are people calling in four to five weeks ahead of time to shelters and still can’t get in,” Hoing said.
Many homeless, who are not or cannot make use of the shelters, say not being able to sleep on the 16th Street Mall leaves them vulnerable to violence and theft.
“It’s dangerous to sleep in places besides the mall,” said Bill Miller, a five-year vendor of the Denver VOICE. “We get kicked off the mall and pick up and there’s nowhere to go–it’s somebody’s territory.”
“If they are going to pass a law like this they are supposed to create a place to go,” he said.
Despite the criticism of the ban initially by Denver’s homeless advocacy groups, Milliner said the ban has helped to drive the needy to services they may have otherwise been unaware of.
However, VOICE vendors Dave Simmers and Dennis Day say the effort is unnecessary. “The people that want to use the services are already using the services,” said Day. “This law does nothing but give them the right to harass you.”
Miller said many homeless plan to continue their day-to-day lifestyles as if there is no ban in effect.
“As far as most of us are concerned, we’re going to carry on,” he said. “It’s just so inconvenient because we are not doing anything wrong, every city has homeless.”
Several counties near Denver have also looked at drafting camping bans, including Aurora County. Despite expectations and claims that the Denver ban would push homeless into the suburbs, there have not been reports of raised numbers of homeless. “One thing people need to fully understand is that homelessness really has no boundaries and is an issue we need to address as a region,” Milliner said.
“Regardless of the legislative landscape,” he said, “we’re going to continue to deliver services, update our plan, and continue to evaluate our system for better ways to serve the homeless.”