Criminalizing Homelessness Report: 70% Busted, Cited or Harassed for Sleeping

Additional photos and more below.
Additional photos and more below.
Photo by Britt Chester

Last week, we shared a Denver human waste map that's being used as part of a push to fund more public restrooms in central Denver.

And while such facilities wouldn't only be used by members of the homeless community, advocates with Denver Homeless Out Loud contend that such facilities would be greatly beneficial to people living on the streets — and they've got the data to back it up.

Tomorrow, the organization will unveil the first part of Those People: Our Public Existence, a documentary about homelessness in Colorado, as well as a new report based upon a survey of 500 homeless residents of the state. And a preview of the results provides plenty of unsettling information.

According to Terese Howard, a Denver Homeless Out Loud activist, "70 percent of our survey respondents have been harassed, ticketed or arrested simply for sleeping, 64 percent have been harassed, ticketed or arrested for sitting or laying down, and 24 percent have been harassed, ticketed or arrested for sleeping in a vehicle."

A photo from our Sleeping on the 16th Street Mall slideshow.
A photo from our Sleeping on the 16th Street Mall slideshow.
Photo by Britt Chester

The documentary and report are intrinsically tied to the Right to Rest Act, also known as the Colorado Homeless Bill of Rights. The measure, which is being considered by the Colorado legislature this session, can be seen below in its entirety, but here's its summary:

The bill creates the “Colorado Right to Rest Act”, which establishes basic rights for persons experiencing homelessness, including, but not limited to, the right to use and move freely in public spaces without discrimination, to rest in public spaces without discrimination, to eat or accept food in any public space where food is not prohibited, to occupy a legally parked vehicle, and to have a reasonable expectation of privacy of one’s property. A person whose rights have been violated may seek enforcement in a civil action, and a court may award relief and damages as appropriate. The bill does not create an obligation for a provider of services for persons experiencing homelessness to provide shelter or services when none are available.

Howard says the bill was informed by the results of the survey, which was completed by homeless Coloradans in ten cities across the state, including Denver, Fort Collins, Boulder, Colorado Springs, Grand Junction and Montrose. The complete report isn't being released until tomorrow, but here are some of the main findings:

A photo from our Sleeping on the 16th Street Mall slideshow.
A photo from our Sleeping on the 16th Street Mall slideshow.
Photo by Britt Chester

• 70% harassed, ticketed, arrested for sleeping, with 25% of these being ticketed and 14% being arrested
• 64% harassed, ticketed, or arrested for sitting or lying down, with 15% being ticketed and 7% being arrested
• 50% harassed, ticketed, or arrested for loitering, with 14% ticketed and 6% arrested
• 24% harassed, ticketed, or arrested for sleeping in a vehicle, with 5% ticketed and 2% arrested
• 35% harassed, ticketed, or arrested for panhandling, with 11% ticketed and 7% arrested
• 48% harassed, ticketed, or arrested for standing up for another person, with 10% ticketed and 8% arrested
• 52% harassed, ticketed, or arrested for “appearing homeless,” with 7% ticketed and 3% arrested
• 23% harassed, ticketed, or arrested for urinating privately in public, 10% ticketed and 4% arrested
• 43% harassed, ticketed, or arrested for park curfew, with 19% ticketed and 8% arrested
• When asked, “Do police ever harass you without having any legal reason?” 79% said yes
• When asked, “Have you encountered private security guards hassling people, ordering people away or otherwise policing public sidewalks or parks?” 78% said yes
• When asked, “Have police or city employees ever taken your belongings?” 60% said yes
• 73% have been denied access to bathrooms, with 23% harassed, ticketed, or arrested for urinating in public due to lack of access to bathrooms, and 52% have been denied access to water.

Given the restroom-related numbers, it's no surprise Howard and the rest of the Denver Homeless Out Loud crew are supportive of efforts to add more facilities in Denver. However, she stresses that "we're not just trying to work on a one-city level. There are suburbs like Lakewood and Englewood where it's an issue, too. It's definitely vital for Denver to make more bathrooms available, but we're trying to address this issue throughout Colorado.

A photo from our Sleeping on the 16th Street Mall slideshow.
A photo from our Sleeping on the 16th Street Mall slideshow.
Photo by Britt Chester

"It's interesting," she continues, "but in smaller places like Montrose and Grand Junction, there's way more access to bathrooms and water there than there is in Denver. There are a great number of parks in Montrose and Grand Junction that actually have public bathrooms. So it's not that Denver is taking the lead on this. It's actually just catching up to some of these smaller communities."

In Howard's view, the bill, the report and the film, whose first section spotlights the homeless in Denver (the complete doc will include people living on the street across the state), are about addressing what she sees as "the criminalization of homelessness, which is spreading across our country quite rapidly. They will help people understand the bigger picture of where priorities lie with shelters, with housing and with other forms of discrimination, and put that into context."

Some observers may be caught off balance by the scope of the problem, but "unfortunately, I'm not as surprised as I should be," Howard admits. "We spend a lot of time on the streets, so we know this stuff is happening all the time. Take sleeping in a vehicle. There's not even a clear ordinance in Denver against sleeping in one, as there is with private property or things like that. But even so, people are being harassed over that. And there are a lot of other disturbing findings about just basic acts of survival, like sleeping and sitting."

The "No Right to Rest" report and part one of Those People: Our Public Existence, a documentary being made in conjunction with the DAM Collective, will be shared at an event scheduled to take place from 1-3 p.m. Tuesday, April 7, at St. Paul's Lutheran Church, 1600 Grant Street. For more information, click here.

Look below to read the Colorado Homeless Bill of Rights.

Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.

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