In recent weeks, the issue of homelessness in Denver has once again taken center stage in light of dropping temperatures and a pair of viral videos that show Denver police officers taking blankets from the homeless. The videos produced a flurry of statements from the ACLU of Colorado, Mayor Hancock and the Denver Police Department, all trying to contextualize those actions.
But concern over Denver’s homeless crisis has also moved beyond social-media rhetoric; it was represented in a very tangible way on Thursday, December 15, when hundreds of community members gathered at the Exdo Event Center to participate in a forum exploring alternative approaches to policing the homeless with sweeps and anti-camping ordinances.
Move Along to Where? opened on a somber note when Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Poverty and Homelessness, told the crowd that Denver was one of four cities that made the organization’s “Hall of Shame” list in 2016.
Having just flown in from Washington, D.C., Foscarinis said her organization has been monitoring Denver’s homeless sweeps and enforcement of its camping ban. “Tonight we need to address the fact that we’re in a community crisis,” she said.
No one denied Foscarinis’ “crisis” characterization, including one of the evening’s featured panelists, Denver City Council President Albus Brooks.
“I know I’m the elephant in the room because I’m part of the camping ordinance,” Brooks acknowledged, referring to his sponsorship of the city's controversial Unauthorized Camping Ordinance, which as been in place since 2012.
(Watch a livestream of the entire event, captured by Kayvan Khalatbari, below.)
“What I regret is the division it’s caused in the city,” Brooks added. “We’re better than this.”
While Brooks refused to condemn the camping ban, unlike many of his critics in the room, he noted that he had never seen such a large and diverse crowd congregate in Denver to discuss homelessness. The council president then offered to head up a new committee to explore housing solutions.
There were plenty of suggestions along those lines on Thursday night. Some of the other panelists, including Amanda Henderson of the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado and Ray Lyall of Denver Homeless Out Loud, proposed the use of tiny houses, sanctioned tent encampments and "circ" houses (similar to yurts) for those who have been refused from, or have elected not to use, Denver’s homeless shelters. Henderson also revealed that the mayor’s office appears to be warming to the idea, having met with members of the Alternative Solutions Advocacy Project (a coalition that Westword recently profiled) on Monday, December 12.
Another panelist, Ibrahim Mubarak, had traveled from Portland, Oregon, to describe the success of sanctioned encampments in his home city. Mubarak said that the encampments, which are apart from Portland’s shelter system, had led hundreds of people to find permanent housing and transition out of poverty.
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Many city officials were present for Thursday night's discussion — among them councilmembers Paul Kashmann, Robin Kniech, Rafael Espinoza and Kendra Black; as well as Evan Dreyer and Amber Miller, representing the mayor’s office.
After the panel took questions from the audience, some in the crowd took to the podium to present “calls to action" that included appeals to the city to repeal, or at least cease the enforcement of, its urban-camping ban.
Brooks noted that he hoped Thursday's event leads to more dialogue and that Denver's innovative spirit, as evidenced by its world-class airport and progressive marijuana legislation, shows that Denverites can also come together and find solutions to homelessness.