For the homeless, "urban camping" is no picnic
A long time ago, I was a nineteen-year-old homeless kid. The circumstances aren't particularly important, but basically I just surfed too many couches and polished off too many bottles of my hosts' booze until, chronically unemployed and perpetually drunk, I had nowhere to go. But even then, I stayed the hell out of downtown — too loud, too weird, too much hassle — in favor of sleeping in quiet parks around Glendale and Cherry Creek, though that also meant having to move around, sometimes several times, on sprinkler nights. (There is no experience more degrading than being awakened by a sprinkler.)
Today I'm housed and sober, but I still don't get why any homeless person would bother with downtown. So last Monday night, I packed my bag and a thermos of coffee and headed for the 16th Street Mall, ground zero in this city's fight over "urban camping" — an odd term to describe a practice that has historically never involved a single s'mores cookout. A proposal to ban urban camping — and so to ban the homeless from sleeping on the mall and in any other public spots that aren't already off limits — is grinding its way through the machinations of bureaucracy toward a vote next month. It's already been the subject of endless discussion, but one group has been conspicuously absent from the proceedings: the homeless themselves.
10:35 p.m., Colfax and Broadway
Supporters of the proposed ban deny that it has anything to do with the Occupy Denver protests, and while the timing is a little suspect — after all, the homeless have been around forever, while Occupy started occupying Denver's sidewalks just seven months ago, shortly before talk of an "urban camping" ban began — downtown businesses have been very vocal lately regarding their concerns over people sleeping on the 16th Street Mall. No doubt, Occupy is unsightly — sleeping bags, slogan signs and random garbage litter a block-long section of the sidewalk across from Civic Center Park, while an assortment of grizzled old bums and crust-punks smoke weed and loiter — but on the other hand, there aren't any businesses in the immediate vicinity to wring their hands over what effect this might be having on their customers. Even Lil Bear, a nineteen-year-old Occupier who stands in the center of his group and monologues on how the movement is a "combination Great Depression, revolution and I don't even know," seems to get that the impetus behind the proposal is bigger than a congregation of protesters on the corner. "This sucks. This sucks," he muses. "This sucks that people have to live this way. If we're such a great country, then why are all these people out here?"
A little way down from Lil Bear's party, sitting cross-legged on his sleeping bag and staring meditatively toward Civic Center Park (which, like all Denver parks, is closed after 11 p.m.), Occupier Michael McPheron — in his forties, probably, wearing a neat beard, a hat and thick glasses — mulls it over. "Some of them thought it might be directed at us," he says, "although I also think it might be a thing where the government is being hit by problems they can't solve, and they think this might work. I've noticed as long as I've been here, there's always somebody sleeping in a doorway. It seems like any conceivable place where a homeless person might be sleeping, there they are. So I think they might think this might stop that. But I can't see how it would. A person's homeless, they don't really have the ability to go, 'Oh, well, this is illegal, I guess I won't be homeless anymore.'"
Then again, McPheron acknowledges that for him, that exact scenario might be the case. "I'm probably not...I don't know how this is going to sound, but I'm probably not as homeless as some of the people out here. I think I have the ability to claw my way up off the streets pretty quickly. But a lot of these guys couldn't do that," he says. "And even if I do, I'm still going to be occupying."
11:20 p.m., 16th Street Mall at Welton
Picture a homeless guy, and chances are you picture someone who resembles Kent Mollohan — a lot. Out on the streets since 1987, he sports a houndstooth coat and double orthopedic boots — the result of multiple small amputations on his feet over the years because of frostbite — and looks exactly like Gandalf, with an easy smile that, though toothless, is oddly charming. He's hands-down my favorite homeless guy of the night. His explanation for his presence on the mall is simple: "It's the safest place there is."
That seems counterintuitive, but this sentiment is echoed by everyone I talk with this night. On the mall there's a lot of light, patrols come by, people look out for one another. "You know, down here, we're kind of like family," Mollohan reflects. "A couple of nights ago, these guys at Maggiano's over there come out — they're pretty good about giving food to people. I'd already had something to eat, so I said, look, there's three of my friends back in the alley, you know, you have some food, I'll bring some food back to those fellas. And that's what I did. That's kind of the way it works. You know, you get to know people. I know a few people who work around here. I got another guy over there, come out of the Pinkberry some nights and give me a little frozen yogurt. I said to him, hey, no offense, but I'm going to be sleeping in your doorway tonight." He laughs at this.
Mollohan's a pretty positive guy, and his attitude about the proposed ban is surprisingly good-humored. "Yeah, you hear all this garbage," he chuckles. "What are they doing now, they're saying you can't be on private property? It's public property? I mean, I can understand like doorways and stuff like that — I can understand that. But my thing is, they say you can't sleep on public property, my question is, what does the American Civil Liberties Union have to say about that?"
The ACLU is indeed opposed to this proposal, but it could be fighting a losing battle; dozens of cities around the country have bans similar to the one that's now on the table, as Assistant City Attorney David Broadwell has pointed out. Since 2005, Denver's so-called "sit-lie" ordinance has ruled the 16th Street Mall during the hours of dawn and dusk, basically unchallenged, dictating that no one sit too long or lie down during those hours. For now, though, all bets are off at night.
Midnight, 16th Street Mall at Stout
Mike Eigsti has been homeless for fifteen years, and he doesn't really give a shit if the city passes the ban. "I'd just find somewhere else to sleep," he says. The only reason he sleeps downtown now, he explains, is "the suburbs are kind of barren."
The densest concentration of homeless folk is between California and Champa, where the doorways have been filling up and many people are already bedded down for the night, although a few remain on the move. A guy hanging around in front of the Walgreens tries to hustle a few bucks when I ask questions, as though he's some kind of informant. A few doors down, another guy strumming a battered guitar in front of a closed sandwich shop gets pissy when I stop to talk. "I'm trying to make my living out here," he snaps. He strums a few more chords for an audience of nobody.
12:30 a.m., Market Street Station
One frat boy sleeps on a bench, ignored by security. Otherwise, the bus station is deserted. We head all the way to the far end of the mall, into the construction past Union Station, then turn around and start working our way back to Civic Center. A paddy wagon rolls by and the deputy inside eyeballs a homeless guy sleeping upright on a bench in a coat so puffy it obscures his face, but the vehicle keeps moving.
1:45 a.m., 16th Street Mall at California
A couple of rickshaw hustlers are lounging in their pedicabs outside the Appaloosa Grill, waiting for closing time. About twenty feet away, a shockingly large pile of still-steaming pink vomit provides evidence that the trickling-out of drunks is already under way.
"I don't blame them for sleeping here," says Carrie Lander, a compact twenty-something in a T-shirt and messenger cap. "It's so patrolled. I think it's ludicrous to say they're going to kick them out of here and then not give them a place to stay."
That's not entirely true. Denver's Road Home, the organization that administers the city's ten-year plan to end homelessness, which then-mayor John Hickenlooper started seven years ago, has tried to present the ban in terms of compassion, arguing that it would provide another mechanism for making contact with homeless people and then getting them into shelters, detox, even motels in some cases — all with the eventual goal of getting them off the street for good. The Denver Police Department, through Chief Robert White, has committed to not issuing a citation or making an arrest under a no-camping ordinance without the approval of a supervisor — at least for the first year. (According to the city, there's never been a citation issued under the "sit-lie" ordinance.) That would leave the bulk of the work to the DPD's four officers who work with the homeless, as well as Denver's Road Home outreach workers. On the other hand, even Denver's Road Home executive director Bennie Milliner admits that the city simply does not have the resources to help every homeless person. Not even close.
"I know a couple of these guys down here got my back if I ever got into trouble," Lander says now, turning to Tony Guise, her fellow rickshaw driver. "Don't you think Dingo would have my back?"
Guise nods thoughtfully. "These guys don't cause me any trouble. The most trouble I ever get is when my drunk-ass passengers want me to let them out so they can go fuck with these guys: 'Oh, let me out a minute, I want to go talk shit to this homeless dude.' It's like, fine, get out, ride's over, dickhead."
Across the street, a bum walks by belting a fairly impressive rendition of "I've Got a Feeling" at the top of his lungs. No law against that — yet.
Down the mall, two girls stumble past the Sheraton. Inside the hotel, eighteen TVs are all showing the same channel in the empty bar.
3:30 a.m., Civic Center Station
Denver City Councilman Albus Brooks, sponsor of the proposed ordinance, has said that it was inspired by a walk he took with his wife along the mall last summer, when they counted more than a hundred homeless people (the number seems to vary). At this moment, I do not see a single upright soul anywhere on the mall, so the time looks right to make my own official count. I retrace the sixteen blocks to Union Station, counting along the way. I tally 44 people asleep on the mall.
Brooks has also complained about the amount of stuff that homeless people tend to surround themselves with; this, too, seems exaggerated. The people sleeping on the mall tonight tend to keep their things neatly organized and packed in tight — and why wouldn't they? When a few shopping bags contain all your earthly possessions, you want that shit close at hand.
5 a.m., 16th Street Mall at California
As if roused by some internal alarm clock issued only to the homeless, a large chunk of the sleeping population awakens almost exactly at 5 a.m. That's when the mall bus begins its daily grind, and a few early-bird fitness freaks jog by. Street noise picks up, and the city slowly comes to life. There's still no sign of light in the east, and it's about 25 degrees colder than it was at midnight, but across the street in the doorway of a souvenir shop, one guy rustles in his sleeping bag and sits up. Slowly, he folds his bag and gathers his things, then just stands there for a few minutes, dazed, before he starts walking west.
6:15 a.m., 16th Street Mall at Champa
When the wake-up call comes, it's in the form of a purple-shirted Downtown Denver Partnership worker who prefers not to think of himself as a wake-up call. "Hey, it's my job to make sure they're all right," he says, hurrying to his truck after rousing a couple asleep in the doorway of Wild West Souvenirs. "I'm not waking them up; I'm making sure they're living." The Partnership, which has the contract to maintain the thirty-year-old mall for the city, estimates that it spends half a million dollars a year making sure it's cleared of snoozers and ready for business every morning.
If they weren't in a cold, stinking doorway, Matthew and Brittney Adams would look like almost any other young couple stirring awake against their will, groaning, stretching, folding into each other for just a few more minutes. They're both nineteen years old and look it; Brittney sports short, dense dreadlocks and baby fat. They used to stay at Urban Peak, a youth shelter on the south side. "It was too much drama," she says, stifling a yawn. "That's why we sleep out here."
"See, what happened was, we came from Colorado Springs," Matthew adds, "but they got a law like that down there, and they kicked us out. So we came up here. Honestly, I don't know what we'll do if they kick us out of here. Guess we'll just keep migrating."
For now, though, they've got a more immediate destination. "Personally," says Brittney, "I'm going to Civic Center and go back to sleep."