Homeless advocates across Colorado hope to combat local laws banning individuals from sitting on sidewalks and sleeping on the street with a proposal scheduled to be heard in the House Veterans and Military Affairs Committee on April 15. If approved by legislators and signed by the governor, they say, the bill would negate current laws that violate an individual's right to rest — and prevent future ones.
“We decided to introduce this bill to prevent the introduction of laws that would push homeless individuals away from the resources they need most,” says Representative Jovan E. Melton, who is co-sponsoring the bill with Representative Joe Salazar.
In a more direct way, “it would allow the homeless not to be chased around and criminalized,” explains Robert Hudson of Denver Homeless Out Loud, which has pushed for the bill and authored it with the help of the Western Regional Advocacy Project.
Other states have introduced versions of what has been dubbed a “Homeless Bill of Rights.” As defined by the National Coalition for the Homeless, such a measure prohibits segregation due to lack of housing and protects the rights of homeless individuals to vote and have access to public spaces and services, including education for children and legal counsel. At least thirteen cities and states are considering a Homeless Bills of Rights or related proposals; some have passed.
Advocates argue that you can't ban people from things like sitting and sleeping in public when there aren't other options.
“Besides preventing people from the obvious — sitting, resting, and sleeping — I think that laws like these contribute to people feeling alienated from their community,” says Leslie Foster, president and CEO of the Gathering Place, which helps women experiencing homelessness in Denver. “When we punish people for taking care of their basic needs without providing proper places and forums to do so in what we consider an appropriate manner, we are effectively telling people that we do not, will not and cannot support their very survival.”
Colorado’s Right to Rest bill is a just a step toward a full Homeless Bill of Rights, says Benjamin Donlon of Denver Homeless Out Loud. “We kept it to the basic minimum on what we think we can get, just so something passes," he explains. "But it would be significant.”
As we noted in a post yesterday, the decision to focus on the right to rest was determined by a recent DHOL survey and a collaborative effort with WRAP, which is also helping introduce this type of legislation in California and Oregon. The survey interviewed about 500 people around Colorado about their experience with police and laws that prevent resting in public space, as well as access to services for such basic needs as bathrooms and housing. DHOL reports that the majority of those surveyed said they’d been harassed, arrested or ticketed for sleeping or sitting in public space. The full results of that survey will be released today, a week before the hearing on the proposed legislation.
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“I think it will help," Foster says of the proposal. "As with all things, solutions are seldom found in one piece of legislation or in one approach.”
But Tom Luehrs, the executive director of the St. Francis Center, a day shelter, doesn't see the bill as a solution — mainly because he doesn’t think it will be passed. “I know people don’t like the ordinance, but do people really think that the state legislature will go for this type of legislation?” he asks. “What is most important is creating more space, shelter, services and ultimately housing for our homeless community members, so we stop getting stuck on a very ineffective ordinance. Let’s address the big issues.”
Denver Homeless Out Loud members think they have good arguments for the bill: not just a moral argument but an economic one, since serving the homeless proactively instead of reactively saves governments money. The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless estimates that $31,546 is spent annually on emergency services for just one homeless person. “Criminalizing the homeless is morally bad, but also fiscally irresponsible, which I think is overlooked often,” says Donlon. If the bill passes, proponents acknowledge that it will not erase the entire cost of homelessness, but they say it will save money for local governments because there will be less need for police action and jail time if individuals are allowed in public spaces without fear of arrest.
DHOL’s Terese Howard wants to make it clear that the bill isn’t just about Denver’s camping ban, which was passed in May 2012 and bans individuals from sitting or sleeping on public or private property in Denver, but was introduced in response to regulations in many towns and cities across Colorado. That's why the group went to the Colorado Legislature. “We can do whatever we want in Denver," she says, "but it doesn’t address the desperate need in Grand Junction, and Boulder, and all over the place."