On Monday November 4th, 2013 Nichole, a woman experiencing homelessness in Denver, went to court for a ticket issued to her for “unlawful camping.” She was given this ticket while lying on her blanket under the “pillars” in Civic Center park on a cold rainy afternoon. The description on the ticket said “unlawful camping”, but instead of citing the ordinance number for the urban camping ban, the officer cited 39-7a which is a park violation prohibiting sleep in or on a blanket in the park overnight. However, as noted, this ticket was issued in the afternoon, not at night when the park camping violation 39-7a would apply. So why did the officer issue this ticket under the ordinance for park camping violation instead of the urban camping ban which actually would apply to lying on a blanket under the pillars during the day? Neither the city attorney or the Magistrate over the case seemed to have an answer to this.
At court the city attorney dismissed the “unlawful camping” under park violation 39-7a charge because this law does not apply during the day and thus does not apply to Nichole’s situation. The city attorney did not choose to add a charge for unauthorized camping (urban camping ban) which would be the accurate charge. When Magistrate Mark Muller called Nichole’s case his immediate response was “Unlawful camping? I didn’t think the city was filing these cases.” Technically they are not. But in this case the ordinance the officer cited (39-7a) did not actually apply whereas the urban camping ban would.
Denver Homeless Out Loud’s survey in the winter of 2012 of over 500 people who are homeless about the effect of the camping ban, showed that people are not being given tickets for urban camping. Instead, they are being approached for sleeping or covering themselves, in violation of the urban camping ban, and then are being given tickets for other charges, especially park curfew or trespassing. The ticket issued to Nichole under a park violation but titled “unlawful camping” proves to be the same situation. A ticket was issued for another, in this case inapplicable, charge, after the person was approached because of the urban camping ban. Regardless of what ordinance number the ticket is cited under, the same situation occurs: police approach someone because of the camping ban, tell them they can’t lie there, and if they don’t pick up their blankets and “move along,” issue a ticket for another charge (such as park curfew, trespassing, or in this case “unlawful camping” under park violations).
No matter whether Nichole was given a camping ban, park violation, trespassing, or other such ticket, she still had to move on from the warmer place where she was resting at the time, and make it to court to settle the ticket.
Clearly, the city, with the enthusiastic approval of the Downtown Denver Partnership (which supported and encouraged the passage of the urban camping ban) is following a strategy of using the urban camping ban, and the threat of a ticket or arrest, to get people without houses to stay away from areas the city doesn’t want them to be in. When this doesn’t work the person is often ticketed on another charge, thus avoiding the constitutionality of the urban camping ban from being challenged in court–a challenge which the city’s attorneys have advised them (based on other cases and legal opinions nationwide) they could well lose.
What should we as people experiencing homelessness and allies do about this situation? Should we work together to amend or overturn the camping ban? If so, what is the best way to do this?
We of Denver Homeless Out Loud welcome you to join us in our discussions and planning around this and other issues that critically impact the lives of people experiencing homelessness–and therefore of all Denver residents. We meet every Wednesday from 4:45 to 7 pm at 901 W 14th Avenue, in the offices of the American Friends Service Committee. (Turn north off of 14th Avenue at Santa Fe, across from King Soopers, into the Courtyard Square Apartment complex.) For more information: