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. This is especially acute for homeless youth who are forced into the shadows by this ordinance, pushed away from outreach workers and exposed to even greater harm. This ordinance explicitly ignores the expert advice of The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty and The National Coalition for the Homeless in addition to the United States Interagency on Homelessness and is a violation of international human rights standards.
Mayor Michael Hancock and Councilman Albus Brooks (District 8), with pressure from the Downtown Denver Partnership, led the effort to pass an ordinance in the Denver City Council that authorizes the police to require the homeless go to a shelter or move along whenever they are caught protecting themselves from the elements or face criminal sanctions. The “Urban Camping” Ban, now Sec. 38-86.2. of the Denver Municipal Code, passed on May 14, 2012 and supersedes Sec. 38-86.1. which provided the homeless a safe sanctuary in the Downtown Denver Improvement District between the hours of 9:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m. The 16th Street business community wanted the homeless out of sight before the tourist season began.
Not only was all expert advice ignored in drafting this ordinance, but it was introduced into the Land Use, Transportation & Infrastructure Committee before consulting with the Denver Homeless Commission, a commission appointed by Mayor Hancock himself. It was introduced into the Land Use Committee instead of the Health, Safety, Education & Services Committee where it belonged so that it would garner enough votes to clear the committee to the full City Council. It became clear early on in the process that the ordinance had a predetermined outcome that would provide a quick solution to serve the individual interests of Denver’s 16th Street business community who felt the presence of the homeless in the downtown harmed them economically.
The ordinance was introduced with promises that it would help connect the homeless to shelters and services while all the experts repeatedly said there were simply insufficient resources for the homeless. John Parvensky, President of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, told the Denver Post, “It is even more inhumane to make [homelessness] illegal while acknowledging that there is not sufficient shelter or housing alternatives. There is a significant lack of adequate emergency shelter to meet the needs of our citizens in Denver, such that tonight, after every shelter bed in the city is full, there will be hundreds of men and women sleeping on the streets, in their cars, or in abandoned buildings. Compounding the problem is the lack of health, mental health, and substance abuse treatment services for those experiencing homelessness, which creates multiple barriers to housing and employment. Last year, more than 2,000 individuals who are homeless and mentally ill in Denver were on the waiting list for mental health services at the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless’ Stout Street Clinic due to lack of capacity to serve them.”
Many people who opposed the ordinance during public hearings stated that there were serious issues that needed to be addressed, and that a more appropriate way of addressing them was to convene a problem-solving conversation with the homeless, the 16th Street business community, people concerned about Civic Center Park, organizations that offer shelter and services to the homeless, the faith community and other interested individuals and organizations. A number of City Councilmembers offered amendments to the ordinance to make it safer for the homeless.
Not a single change to the ordinance was made to address the concerns of the large number of speakers who opposed the ordinance. To quote Councilwoman Shepherd on the evening of the final vote, “I know the way this vote is going to go. I know it. And I think you all know how this vote is going to go too. And unfortunately, the sad thing about it is that it has been like that from day one.”
The process was an affront to democracy, transparency and accountability. The ordinance was passed in the Denver City Council by a vote of 9 to 4:
Voted Against Ordinance
Susan K. Shepherd (District 1)
Paul D. López (District 3)
Robin Kniech (At Large)
Deborah (Debbie) Ortega (At Large)
Voted For Ordinance
Jeanne Faatz (District 2)
Peggy Lehmann (District 4)
Mary Beth Susman (District 5)
Charlie Brown (District 6)
Chris Nevitt (District 7)
Albus Brooks (District 8) – Lead Sponsor
Judy H. Montero (District 9)
Jeanne Robb (District 10)
Christopher Herndon (District 11)
Important Additional Reading:
- Guest Commentary: Homeless aren’t criminals, Denver Post–John Parvensky, President, Colorado Coalition for the Homeless
- Negative Impacts of an “Urban Camping” Ban in Denver (pdf), Colorado Coalition for the Homeless
- Letter to Mayor Hancock (pdf), National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty
- Letter to Mayor Hancock (pdf), Metropolitan Denver Homeless Initiative (MDHI)
- Open Letter to Mayor Hancock, Occupy Denver
- Letter to the Denver City Council (pdf), American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)
- Letter to Mayor Hancock and the Denver City Council, State Senators and Representatives
- USA: “Moving away from the criminalization of homelessness, a step in the right direction”, United Nations Human Rights
- Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition Board Statement on Denver’s Camping Ban (pdf), Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition Board of Directors