Nicole Millman, aka Nicole Sisneros, aka the Crazy Jesus Lady, has come back from the dead. Two years ago, when Occupy Denver was a couple of months into occupying Denver, a rumor spread that an occupier had died, succumbing to hypothermia while camped out in Civic Center Park. The rumor raced through the camp, across social media, into the Denver Police Department and the Denver Coroner's Office, which scrambled to chase it down. Eventually the rumor even reached Millman, as she was feeding a tortilla to pigeons in the park. "People keep coming up to me and saying I'm alive," she said. "I know I'm alive. Why don't they?" And that evening, a very alive Millman, armed with two Bibles, led a candlelight vigil down the 16th Street Mall to commemorate a death that hadn't happened — but could have.
Life on the streets can be dangerous.
Millman knows all about that. A native of Wyoming who came to Denver after a marriage went bad in Nevada, she's lived on the streets off and on since she arrived seven years ago. After the Occupy movement dwindled away, she moved to Boulder for a while, "to get away from everything," she says, but as she collected no-camping citation after no-camping citation there, she decided it was time to come back to Denver. In fact, Boulder officials themselves suggested it would be a good idea if she "went south for the winter," she remembers, pointing out that they wouldn't pursue any already issued violations outside of the county. And although Denver had instituted its own ban on urban camping in May 2012, that was with the city's assurance that the DPD would only issue citations as a very last resort, after officers had given information on service providers to the homeless they found sleeping in doorways, in alleys, along the 16th Street Mall, and only after they'd followed those offers of help with repeated warnings not to violate the new law.
In the seventeen months since the controversial ordinance banning unauthorized camping — DRMC 38-86.2 — was approved, no citations have been issued in Denver. Until Millman got one. Maybe.
Millman is no fan of the camping ban. In fact, she was part of an Occupy Denver group that met with Albus Brooks, the leading proponent on Denver City Council, before the ban was passed, to ask him to reconsider. If the ban passed, they told Brooks, there would be fewer safe places where the homeless could go — and although the city had promised to expand services and beds, that wasn't going to happen right away. But the promise was enough to get the ordinance passed.
Since Millman returned to Denver, she's spent some nights in shelters, spent some nights couch-surfing, spent some nights in places she would rather not reveal — but not in the parks, which have been off-limits between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. for decades, and not on the mall, a prime focus for those pushing the camping ban.
But she likes Civic Center Park, and was back there one recent rainy weekday morning, sitting by the fountain and taking shelter under her sleeping bag. A police officer told her that she needed to move on, and even offered to help get her to the St. Francis Center. Millman doesn't like it there. "Too stressful," she says. "I'd rather sit in the park and deal with the elements." So instead, she moved on. She went to the mall, she stopped by McDonald's, and then that afternoon she was back in the same spot, this time sitting on her sleeping bag, when the officer came back over and told her that by camping, she was in violation of the law — and gave her a ticket. "I was flabbergasted," she says.
She's gotten tickets before. She got them during Occupy for breaking park curfew, and she also got one recently for giving false information. Her photo ID from Nevada was stolen, as was her birth certificate from Wyoming, and some of her paperwork is in her married name, Sisneros, and some in her maiden name, Millman. After she explained that, a judge dropped the false-information charge on Halloween. That just left the no-camping ticket — and just as rumors of Millman's death swept the city two years ago, rumors were flying in both the homeless community and legal circles this weekend that the city had just issued its first ticket under DRMC 38-86.2, one ripe for a challenge.
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"I thought they weren't issuing those tickets," said magistrate Mark Miller on Monday, when Millman, wearing a sweatshirt with a Bible reference, showed up for her appearance in Denver County Court.
As it turned out, the city hadn't. Although the officer had written "unlawful camping" as the violation, when a city attorney looked at the ticket, it turned out Millman had actually been cited for violating the ban on being in the park overnight. And since she was clearly there during the day, the charge was dismissed. Someday there will be a case that truly tests the city's camping ban...but this was not the day.
The Crazy Jesus Lady is risen.