Homeless "Bill of Rights" Shot Down at State Capitol After Ten-Hour Hearing

A man gets emotional during a sweep of the homeless in Denver on November 15, 2016.
A man gets emotional during a sweep of the homeless in Denver on November 15, 2016. Brandon Marshall
On Wednesday, state lawmakers on the House Local Government committee heard from over sixty people who testified in favor of the Right to Rest Act, which would have banned law enforcement agencies and municipalities across Colorado from “criminalizing” homelessness by issuing citations or arresting anyone who rests, sleeps and eats in public spaces.

It was a long and emotional hearing, lasting over ten hours and finally concluding at 11:40 p.m. The bill was voted down eight to five.

The vote was a devastating defeat for homeless advocates in Colorado who had been trying to pass the Right to Rest Act for years; Wednesday’s hearing was the third go-around for bill sponsors Joseph Salazar and Jovan Melton, whose first Right to Rest Act got voted down eight to three during a committee hearing in 2015 and the second (six to five) last year.

As the two House representatives explained to Westword in February, this year’s version of the bill was significantly pared down compared with its predecessors; namely, the most recent bill did not allow private civil lawsuits against businesses that kick out people experiencing homelessness, and it eliminated previous bills’ wording that focused specifically on the rights of the homeless (rather than the rights of all people).

That language was stripped down even further on Wednesday when an amendment was introduced late in the hearing that removed restrictions on local governments to enact ordinances and health codes to conduct sweeps of the homeless. The remaining language in the bill only stipulated that cities and counties couldn’t issue citations to or arrest people resting, sleeping or eating in public.

click to enlarge The hearing at the State Capitol Building on Wednesday. - CHRIS WALKER
The hearing at the State Capitol Building on Wednesday.
Chris Walker
“I don’t know how much lower of a floor we can set,” said Representative Melton during closing arguments. “This is no bells and whistles, people; this is literally the bare bones of the Right to Rest Act.”

Behind the scenes, Melton’s co-sponsor, Joseph Salazar, suggested that there was a mutiny by at least one Democratic lawmaker on the Local Government committee who was unwilling to place restrictions on how cities and counties can manage their homeless populations.

On Facebook, Salazar posted the following about Representative Paul Rosenthal:

Just before the vote, Rosenthal told the chamber, “If we vote no on this bill, it doesn’t mean that we don’t care.” Rather, he said he was concerned about the bill creating lawless encampments and exposing cities and counties to increased litigation for violating homeless peoples’ rights.

All six Republican lawmakers on the committee also voted against the bill, most expressing concerns about unintended consequences if the state superseded the authority of local municipalities when deciding how to approach homeless populations.

The final eight-to-five vote that rejected the bill came despite many hours of passionate testimony by experts, lawyers, advocates and persons experiencing homelessness who wanted to see the bill move to the House floor.

Multiple people experiencing homelessness described, in teary detail, how they had lost stable housing and now find their situation more traumatizing because they are being harassed or ticketed by police officers for violating local ordinances.

Camping bans, especially Denver's, came under the most fire.

The committee heard from all three individuals who were found guilty for violating Denver’s urban-camping ban at a divisive trial that took place earlier this month.

“I was found guilty for something that each and every one of you do every day: surviving," said Jerry Burton, one of the individuals convicted in that case.

An outreach worker with the St. Francis Center in Denver, Sofia Lawson, described a number of horrific scenarios that she claims were caused by Denver’s camping ban, including a man who was trying to sleep in an alleyway hidden away from the police when he was run over by a car, and five different women who were raped because they were forced by police to “move on” from established encampment communities to more dangerous and out-of-the-way locations.

Organizations that testified in favor of the bill included the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, the ACLU of Colorado, the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, the Western Regional Advocacy Project and Bayaud Enterprises.

“Pushing people out of sight and out of mind doesn’t do the real work of finding solutions," said the ACLU of Colorado’s executive drector, Nathan Woodliff-Stanley.

“This would be historic legislation that is much needed and would bring a lot of fame to Colorado for adopting what the federal government has been urging, which is to end the criminalization of homelessness in favor of constructive alternatives,” added senior attorney Tristia Bauman, with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.

click to enlarge State representatives Joseph Salazar and Jovan Melton are the sponsors of the Right to Rest bill. - CHRIS WALKER
State representatives Joseph Salazar and Jovan Melton are the sponsors of the Right to Rest bill.
Chris Walker
The committee also heard from a handful of witnesses who testified against the bill.

Erik Solivan, who is the director of Denver’s new HOPE Office, spoke about how the proposed bill does not solve the issue of homelessness, which was a common refrain among critics despite numerous advocates like Terese Howard of Denver Homeless Out Loud repeatedly telling the committee: “This bill is not meant to solve homelessness,” but rather to prevent the homeless from obtaining criminal records that make it more difficult to gain housing and stability.

Another divisive moment came when Republican representative Larry Liston wanted to specifically add congressional offices to the list of places where the homeless could sleep. It was a reference to an identical amendment introduced at last year’s hearing by Lori Saine that many felt mocked the bill. Last year, Melton told Westword that Republican opponents brought pillows to his office and asked, “Is this a place I can sleep?”

By the time the bill came to a vote, at 11:40 p.m., the writing was on the wall: The Right to Rest bill wouldn't survive a third hearing.

Even so, Melton and Salazar say that they have been inspired by Colorado’s homeless community to keep fighting for a homeless bill of rights; they say they’ll be back with a new version next year.

The committee’s chair, Representative Steve Lebsock, teared up when he looked out at the audience and described why he was disappointed with the evening’s result, and what he felt was necessary going forward.

“Keep fighting,” he told the room. “It took 140 years to do women right and get them the right to vote in this country. It took until two years ago for the Supreme Court to say that two people who love each other should be able to marry. We [didn’t] get it right today. Don’t give up on us.”

Continue to watch all of Wednesday's hearing as captured by the reporting outfit Unicorn Riot:

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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