Activists Storm Denver City Council Meeting to Protest Urban Camping Ban

Denver City Council members had just returned from a recess when activists stormed into council chambers last night. There were about a dozen of them, weaving toward the front of the room in a single file, fired up after recent spats with law enforcement. They included representatives from Occupy Denver, which faced an arrest and material confiscations last Wednesday, and Denver Homeless Out Loud, which had its “Tiny Houses” project raided on Saturday evening at Sustainability Park.

All came to present a petition with over 13,500 signatures that asks the city council to repeal Denver’s urban-camping ban.

The room was silent at first. But as soon as the activists advanced beyond the public-speaking podium, council president Christopher Herndon leaned into his microphone. “We’re going to take a ten-minute recess,” he announced, looking flustered. Then, along with two other council members — Kendra Black and Mary Beth Susman – he abruptly left the chamber.

The room erupted.

“They took my house!" one homeless man yelled.

"Shame on you!" yelled another.

"Repeal the camping ban!" shouted one woman. “City council, lead the way!”

Since it was approved in May 2012, Denver’s urban-camping ban has been one of the most controversial pieces of legislation of Mayor Michael Hancock’s tenure.

Occupy Denver activist Laura Avant, who authored the petition that she started circulating a week ago and collected the signatures presented on Monday night, says that the camping ban represents a “war on homeless” by Denver city officials, and gives city law enforcement an unchecked tool to prevent homeless from sleeping in unauthorized areas.

In a speech before the meeting, she cited a 2013 survey of more than 500 homeless that found that 66 percent sleep in more hidden, less safe areas because of the ban.

Denver’s urban-camping ban is also frequently cited as evidence of a wider, national crackdown on the homeless. A study from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty shows that the number of cities passing legislation targeting camping, loitering, begging, sitting and even eating in public has dramatically risen in the last few years. In 2014 alone, 100 cities passed laws that prohibit people from sitting or lying down in designated public areas. And city-wide ordinances that restrict unauthorized camping, like Denver’s, have increased 60 percent nationwide since 2011.

In other speeches before the council meeting, representatives from Denver Homeless Out Loud, including one man who had just been released from jail that morning following the weekend raid on the Tiny Houses Project, said that the camping ban has made them desperate. They still hope that their Tiny Houses Project can be a solution, but now it seems they have lost those homes, too. One organizer, Marcus Hyde, said that the Denver Police Department and the Denver Housing Authority have not returned the five homes they confiscated on Saturday. “Well, I have a statement. Please drop them off at the following address: Resurrection Village, 2500 Lawrence Street, Denver, Colorado!" he boomed.

As a sign that the homeless issue is heating up in Denver, there were two other protests Monday evening, including a march near Coors Field and a sleep-in at the Tiny Houses site at Sustainability Park, which may have undercut the impact of the demonstration before Denver City Council by dividing attendance.

Inside council chambers, however, the activists’ message came across loud and clear. When Herndon, Susman and Black left the room, other council members remained, not saying anything, but watching the demonstration unfold before them.

"You're not gonna say anything!? You scared?" taunted Caryn Sodaro, the most vocal Occupy Denver demonstrator.

She was perhaps emboldened by the fact that she already has to report to prison Tuesday morning for a trespassing conviction she received for filming police in the parking lot of Argonaut Liquors in April.

When council president Herndon returned to the chambers and said, "I'm sorry for the inconvenience," Sodaro shot back, "Homeless people are not an inconvenience!!"

This response earned applause from the audience. Then the activists, who had been shooting nervous glances at the police gathering at the back of the room, decided to leave en masse before pushing their luck.

When they emerged from the City and County Building, they were hugged by other activists waiting for them outside. "It was beautiful!" someone said.

Head organizer Avant beamed. After collecting more than 13,500 signatures, she successfully delivered her petition directly to Herndon.

“I left it right there on his desk,” she said.

Now the ball is in the city council's court.
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Chris Walker is a freelancer and former staff writer at Westword. Before moving to the Mile High City he spent two years bicycling across Eurasia, during which he wrote feature stories for VICE, NPR, Forbes, and The Atlantic. Read more of Chris's feature work and view his portfolio here.
Contact: Chris Walker