Last week, we wrote about advocacy organization Denver Homeless Out Loud's argument that a $1.8 million security plan to add ten new police officers to patrol the Ballpark neighborhood, LoDo and the 16th Street Mall represents a new effort to criminalize homelessness.
This evening, the Denver City Council is expected to address the proposal -- and even though public comments on it aren't being allowed at this time, DHOL and the Colorado Progressive Coalition members plan to attend in force following a rally protesting the approach.
"We don't agree that taxpayer money should be increased so much on policing, especially when it's targeting a vulnerable population of homeless folks and youths at places like the 16th Street Mall," says Tania Valenzuela, a community organizer for the CPC. "If homelessness is really the issue, there are so many alternatives they could be spending that kind of money on."
The phrase "if homelessness is the issue" is an appropriate one, since various stakeholders disagree on this point. As a recent DHOL release cited in our previous post notes, "It would be unconstitutional discrimination for city officials to direct the police force specifically to target people who are homeless because of their housing status. So instead, they explain that it is not about homelessness itself but about 'criminal activity.'" Examples of the latter mentioned by Denver Police Chief Robert White include "panhandling, smoking weed and public urination" -- and DHOL adds that laws forbidding "sleeping in public," "sitting/lying down along the 16th Street Mall" and "'loitering' in various areas" are also expected to be enforced.
From Valenzuela's perspective, however, such language fails to distance the city's actions from the potential impact on Denver's homeless population.
"We definitely don't want more harassing and profiling of the homeless," she says. "That money should be spent on things that benefit them, like bathrooms where they could wash up and do the things that are necessary for them."
Mayor Michael Hancock is among those pushing for ten more officers in the area due to what he believes is an increasing need for security services. But "we don't believe downtown is crime-infested," Valenzuela says, "and we don't believe the homeless are criminals. The city is criminalizing the very acts of survival they need to do. And we really believe budget priorities should reflect the true needs of the community."
She adds that assorted police officers "are under investigation for increasing amounts of improper conduct and abuses of power and we definitely don't want more money going to that. They need to fix any internal policing problems before they look at expanding if they really need to -- although we don't see the point for that."
Such messages will be at the heart of today's rally. Participants will gather around 3:30 p.m. at Skyline Park, 16th and Arapahoe, after which they'll march down the mall "in an effort to get people this affects to show up. We're going to pass out fliers and information to them and then walk back to the City and County Building for a small rally with speakers. And then, at 5:30, we're going to head into the city council meeting."
Public comment on this subject isn't expected to be allowed, and Valenzuela concedes that "it's very frustrating. But we're going to show up anyway, and maybe if they see this is such a big concern, they'll give us some space to talk."
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More from our News archive circa June 16: "Homelessness being criminalized in Ballpark neighborhood? Advocacy group says yes."