At last Thursday's meeting of Denver's Commission on Homelessness — the first meeting of the group since last November — Denver City Councilman Albus Brooks, who wrote the proposed ordinance to ban "urban camping" in Denver, tried to explain that this proposal hadn't come out of the blue. "We've been talking about this bill since August," he said.
That was the wrong thing to say in a room filled with shelter directors and homeless advocates, some of them wearing "Homes Not Handcuffs" buttons. If the camping-ban ordinance had been in the works for eight months, they asked, why didn't they see the proposal any sooner? "I know you know how to reach me," said Terrell Curtis, executive director of the Delores Project, a women's shelter. "We need to slow this down." At that, the packed room erupted in applause.
Mayor Michael Hancock tried to defend the proposal. "We're not trying to hurt people," he said, calling the notion that the ban would criminalize the homeless "absurd" and "insulting." Allowing people to sleep on the streets is "morally inhumane," the mayor continued, explaining that during the winter, when the city dispatched vans that would take homeless people to a shelter, "we had no way to compel them to go with us." The camping ban, he said, would give the city a tool to make people safe.
But the city's motivations aren't all humanitarian; they're also economic. Like Brooks, Hancock said he had walked the 16th Street Mall and seen "one hundred to two hundred people" preparing to camp out, many of them "vagabond" youth from out of town. And like Brooks, he's received e-mails from people who are tired of being pestered by the homeless when they go to the theater, and from others who are afraid to live downtown.
While some commission members quarreled with Hancock's view that the ban would benefit homeless people — Tom Luehrs, president of the St. Francis Center, which provides shelter and other services, said that homeless people interpret the proposed ban to mean they're disliked and unwanted — much of the discussion focused on the perceived secrecy and behind-closed-doors nature of how the proposal came about. Councilwoman Debbie Ortega said the conversation should have started with the forty-member commission, not with city council. Councilwoman Judy Montero said the bill was kept hush-hush in city council until the last minute.
Although Bennie Milliner, executive director of Denver's Road Home, admits the city cannot shelter everyone who would be displaced by the ordinance, he says his organization is working on a plan to increase beds, which also calls for a central dispatch hotline and the city's first 24-hour homeless resource center. Denver Chief of Police Robert White has promised a "very passive" approach by law enforcement, which would include no citations or arrests in the ordinance's first year unless approved by a supervisor.
But few in the room were satisfied with the city's plans. Leslie Foster, executive director of the Gathering Place, a daytime drop-in center for homeless women, made a motion that council delay voting on the ban until a commission subcommittee can meet to discuss the impacts of such a ban and the resources and funding that would be needed to mitigate them. It passed unanimously — but is not binding. Denver City Council is still slated to vote on the proposal May 7.
Last week, Westword sat down with Albus Brooks, the proposal's main proponent on council, in the conference room of his District 8 office. The room was hand-painted by Denver children, who provide some of his inspiration, he says.
Westword: How did the idea begin?
Albus Brooks: When I first got onto council, one of the first issues people were talking about was we have an incredible homeless issue. The homeless providers were saying, "We need to expand. We need to grow. We need to provide more services." Businesses and residents were saying, "We've never seen it this bad." One of the first things I saw were multiple, multiple, multiple responses from conventioneers where the first and second thing they'd say was, "Do something. I thought you guys were supposed to be the leaders. You're nationally renowned in your effectiveness towards homelessness."
You can't implement good policy unless you understand it from a grassroots level. So I went to see it for myself on the mall, hung out in a hoodie at Triangle Park, walked down the Platte. It's not 100 percent what anyone has been saying. It's not 100 percent hurt and broken and vulnerable. It's not 100 percent travelers. I have spent two-thirds of my time working and visiting and learning about our homeless issue in Denver since July.
That's when you counted 178 homeless people?
On the mall, yes. Now, the Downtown Denver Partnership has ambassadors and outreach workers who have counted up to 200, so on that night that's just where it was.
How much input did you request from the providers in drafting the bill?
Most providers are saying, "We want to help draft the ordinance." That's not going to happen. I have to draft the ordinance, and this is what's going to happen: You react and be in it. But I completely understand: Our mayor, who was leaving Denver's Road Home, moved on. A new mayor comes on, and he has a different focus. Amber Callendar was running Denver's Road Home and she left. And then Bennie [Milliner, current executive director of Denver's Road Home] comes in, and we hadn't had a meeting of the Denver Homeless Commission, which I'm on, since November. It's a perfect storm. I get it. I understand why people are upset. Come to the table now, and let's figure out a solution. I'm more open to this than people know or assume.
To what extent is the ban based on the homeless specifically?
I think that's the immediate group that's affected, but from my perspective, there's not 100 percent of anything. I think you have individuals who don't have a place to go, you have people who choose to sleep outside, you have people with mental disorders and they can't stay in confined areas with folks. You have travelers, and I've met many. You have protesters as well. I think there are many facets of this, but I talk about the homeless because they are affected the most by an ordinance like this.
Why not just extend the "sit-lie" ordinance?
That is actually pushing the problem into other parts of the city. If you extend sit-lie, the neighborhoods that are already affected — the Ballpark, Curtis Park, San Rafael, Enterprise Hill — they are already impacted. There's already homeless individuals living in the alleyways, and then you're just pushing it further. The other reason is that for other councilmembers, when I presented it to them, it doesn't make sense. Why would I vote on something that's just for the downtown area? My thing is that this is the economic engine of the city. This is our living room, the 16th Street Mall. We all are investing in taxpayers and businesses. It's the place we bring people when they come here; we should invest in it. But they wanted something for the districts, as well.
What other options did you consider?
What I fundamentally disagree with is lying out in front of a struggling small business that's just trying to make it. So I was thinking of what it would look like to have business improvement districts within the city, or local maintenance districts, but that's very complex in how to define that and how to know when you're in one.
What is your reaction when you see "Homes Not Handcuffs" buttons and hear accusations of criminalization?
You saw how much it's going to cost for us to release those 300 extra beds: $340,000. We're making an investment. To me, that's not criminalizing the homeless. Part of the thing is that these are chronically homeless, so they will be arrested for quality-of-life issues: drunkenness in public, urinating in public. But if these individuals had a 24-hour facility and we were able to give them services to come and change that direction, you'd begin to see some change there. As a city, this is where civil liberties and government start to meet. We're very compassionate, and we're going to figure it out. But I don't want us to be silly.
You can sit and hypothesize every rule in Denver right now. Since the 1920s, there's been a rule enacted that you can't sleep in parks. It's interesting that no one's ever fought that.
Why enact the ban now — not two years ago, not in two years? And what happens if it's delayed?
Tonight, 300 to 600 people, maybe more and maybe less, will be sleeping outside. All of us as a city could take care of this tomorrow. All of us could give money and figure out a solution and build something tomorrow. I find it very interesting that people are saying, "This is uncompassionate. It's inhumane. But I'm asleep tonight knowing there's three to six hundred people who do not have a place to lay their head."
To me, the most immediate solution is churches. We have hundreds of churches that are closed six days a week. I know people have all these religious connotations, and that's fine, but a church in Denver right now under our zoning code can house eight people. I think that's an excellent opportunity. If five churches took that on, they could take forty people off the streets, especially women and children and teenagers. We have gaping holes — of course — because we're never supposed to or prepared to be responsible for the counties. We are not the Metro County Homeless Organization of Downtown Denver.
Aside from the faith-based arena, what other communities are key to the ban's potential?
Neighborhoods working with the faith communities. I'm not just saying churches: mosques, churches and temples are excellent opportunities. But I also think — and this is going to sound crazy to the business community — that hotel owners and motel owners and bed-and-breakfast folks can help. It doesn't have to be twenty rooms. Two — and working with that person who can't be around other folks. There's been a lot of remarks on my Facebook, and I just say, "Hey, what are you doing today?" Let me tell you what I did: I opened up a church in my district.
To what extent is it Denver's responsibility to provide shelter for each person who might be displaced by the ban?
It's not the government's responsibility to take care of each and every person. I believe lean, efficient governments should and can provide opportunities, especially for those who have fallen on hard times. The problem is that we've created a society that accepts handouts and doesn't take opportunities and wants to continue to get those, and that's the hard piece about this.
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I go to Kenya every year, and it's 86 percent unemployment. It's one of the poorest countries I've ever been to, and you don't see anyone on the corner. You know what they're doing? There are just these entrepreneurs everywhere selling everything and trying to make a living. That's why whenever I see someone selling the Voice, I always give them money, because they're a homeless individual trying to make ends meet. They're trying to do something. I wish and I hope that people study and understand a lot more of what's going on. I'm elected to protect the public good and make sure there are opportunities for the least of these and the most vulnerable. That's the conundrum that I'm in.
What's the most common conception about the ban that you've faced?
I would say "Homes Not Handcuffs," that whole thing. It's not true. Five thousand people have been placed in homes, and we will increase that. I just sat down with a developer in my district who wants to make these high-priced condos, and I negotiated with him fifty units of low-income. These accusations of "We need homes" — it's like, "Yes, and we're working on them." That's never been off the table. And with handcuffs — obviously no one's been arrested for any of our so-called criminalizing homeless bans.
And there's another one: that businesses are the only ones who are upset and driving that. There are many, many, many. I've probably received 1,000 e-mails since this has gone in, and it's even. It's about 550 to 600 people saying, "This is criminalizing, please don't do this," and 500 who are like, "Thank you. It's bad." Our community is split down the middle.