Safer Streets Initiative Wants to Ban "Street-Side" Panhandling in Denver

Safer Streets Initiative Wants to Ban "Street-Side" Panhandling in Denver

A proposal that could ban "street-side" panhandling may appear on Denver's ballot in November. On Friday Gregory Stross, the attorney for the Denver Safer Streets Initiative, fielded questions from David Broadwell of the Denver City Attorney's Office regarding language in the proposed ordinance that would make it “unlawful for a person to conduct an activity immediately adjacent to a roadway that regularly creates, or has the reasonable potential to regularly create, dangerous conditions for automobile drivers, passengers, bicyclists, and pedestrians.”  

As language in the current draft of the proposed ordinance acknowledges, the Denver Safer Streets Initiative “is likely to impact impoverished and homeless persons, who regularly solicit donations along streets and at corner intersections throughout Denver.” When pushed by Broadwell to give examples of ordinance violations that would not apply to panhandling, Stross mentioned people tossing a football across the street, or high school students urging motorists to get their cars washed – “but that should be an exception,” Stross added.

The narrow focus on “impoverished and homeless persons” concerns some homeless advocates who were present at Friday’s review. “People who panhandle at times do so for a motel room when it's cold. Restricting that will condemn them to sleep in the streets, as there are not enough shelter beds or services for three-fourths of the official number of homeless individuals, meaning that [the ordinance] creates unsafe conditions that put people at risk of death,” says Benjamin Donlon of Denver Homeless Out Loud, which promotes the rights of homeless individuals. Denver Homeless Out Loud has also battled Denver’s urban camping ban; the Safer Streets Initiative includes some of the ban's language. For example, both require that Peace Officers must direct individuals to human service providers before issuing citations or making arrests.

History Colorado's James Peterson displays sign in Homeless exhibit.
History Colorado's James Peterson displays sign in Homeless exhibit.

According to Terese Howard, also of Denver Homeless Out Loud, this provision does not mitigate the fact that the proposed Safer Streets initiative criminalizes acts of survival. “What people who are asking for a few bucks need in that moment is a few bucks… using the criminalization of survival acts as a way to get people to ‘human services’ is costly, ineffective, counterproductive, and inhuman,” she says. Donlon echoes this critique in more concrete terms, saying that “the burden of taxpayer money that would go into incarceration and judiciary costs far outweighs the sensibility of using that [money] for creating more housing.”

If the proposal's language meets the technical requirements for Denver ballot measures (read more about that on the Denver Elections page), supporters will have to collect 5,000 signatures in order to get it on the November ballot. Immediately after the review, Stross asked deputies to escort a member of Denver Homeless Out Loud who'd been shouting at him out of the building; Stross declined to speak with Westword

Panhandling is a particularly hot legal issue across Colorado, since a judge ruled that Grand Junction's anti-panhandling ordinance violated the First Amendment. The ACLU of Colorado, which had a representative at Friday's meeting, also opposes the Denver Safer Streets Initiative and issued this statement:

The proponent claims this measure targets disruptions to traffic. What it really targets is poor persons who stand on the side of the street peacefully displaying signs asking for charity, an activity that is squarely protected by the First Amendment. There is no evidence of traffic disruption. This measure is a non-solution in search of a problem.

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