Denver Slightly Eased Enforcement of the Urban Camping Ban in 2017

Denver Police Department
During 2017, the City of Denver slightly eased its enforcement of the urban camping ban, which prohibits sleeping outside and utilizing things like tarps, sleeping bags or tents.

There were 4,647 individual “contacts" in 2017 — interactions that include, at a minimum, law enforcement telling someone violating the ban to pack their belongings and move to another location. That's down slightly from the 5,055 contacts in 2016, though still significantly higher than the 972 made in 2013, the first full year the ban was enforced. 

There were also fewer written warnings issued in 2017: 46 versus 154 in 2016. Only one written warning was issued in both 2013 and 2014.

The city's management of homelessness and affordable housing has come under renewed scrutiny after the Ink! Coffee gentrification fiasco in November, in which protesters blamed Councilman Albus Brooks and Mayor Michael Hancock, both champions of the camping ban, for Denver's affordable-housing shortage. In late December, Candi Cdebaca filed paperwork to challenge Brooks for his seat, and the urban camping ban has been one of her primary criticisms of the sitting Denver City Council president.

Find more information about enforcement of the urbancamping ban below:

Denver Police Department

After reviewing the latest data, Denver Homeless Out Loud, one of the city's main advocacy organizations for those experiencing homelessness, issued the following statement:

"City officials claim that they do not criminalize homelessness, but these statistics validate that they do. In 2017 alone, 4,647 people violating the camping ban were contacted by police. Make no mistake: even if a person is not arrested, ticketed or fined under this law, the very act of being contacted by law enforcement, asked to move along, or searched because of their unsheltered status amounts to a criminalization of that status. These individuals have all been told that they are committing a crime, by surviving. Sleeping with covers is essential to keeping proper body protection; criminalizing the ability to cover yourself is a threat to one's life. Forcing people to move along results in the constant disruption of sleep and requires people to relocate to oftentimes hidden and unsafe locations. These police contacts are not only unnecessary, they compound the condition of homelessness, be it by the negative health effects, losing one's personal documents or identification in the ensuing disruption, or resulting in a criminal record for merely surviving. 2016 saw a 500% increase in enforcement of the survival ban [urban camping ban], and 2017 numbers remain just as high. This is kind of response to a human health epidemic must be repealed for sanity's sake of survival." 
The graph below, which you can enlarge by clicking the upper right corner, shows an entire history of the camping ban's enforcement:

click to enlarge
Click on the upper right corner to enlarge.
Denver Police Department
The city has cut back on large-scale sweep operations, which landed Denver in hot water in 2016 for potential constitutional violations (a class action lawsuit is still grinding its way through a federal court).

In May 2016, Westword obtained hard data about the urban camping ban's enforcement, including how often — and where — it is used to displace people. Our reporting revealed that the camping ban is enforced by police officers primarily through verbal “move on” orders rather than through issuing tickets or making arrests. According to protocol, those approached by officers are supposed to be offered services like shelters or, if needed, hospitals.

An encampment — which was forced to dismantle — near the Platte River.
Brandon Marshall
In defending the camping ban, the mayor's administration has repeatedly told Westword that the city is trying to look out for people's safety and that Denver's homeless shelter system has adequate capacity to house anyone who needs shelter.

Critics such as the ACLU of Colorado, however, charge that the law criminalizes homelessness and that there are legitimate reasons why those experiencing homelessness might choose to sleep in public rather than in a shelter, including concerns about safety, privacy and contracting diseases inside the shelters' tight quarters.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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

Latest Stories