Terese Howard, perhaps Denver's most outspoken advocate for individuals experiencing homelessness and a principal organizer of the group Denver Homeless Out Loud, believed that she was facing jail time when she reported to a probation-violation hearing at the Lindsey Flanigan Courthouse on Thursday, August 24.
Howard was one of three defendants who were convicted for violating Denver's ban against camping – defined as sleeping or resting while using cover in public – at a contentious two-day jury trial in April. Because Howard was already on probation at the time that she was cited for illegal camping last winter (Howard had already been cited for trespassing back in October 2015, when the Denver Police Department cracked down on a tiny-home village being constructed without a permit in Five Points), she faced additional penalties, since her probation had stipulated that she not break any more laws for one year beginning in April 2016.
Earlier this week, Howard told Westword that a city prosecutor had informed her that the city would push for a maximum penalty for her probation violation: thirty days in jail.
Denver Homeless Out Loud also sent out multiple press releases proclaiming possible jail time for Howard.
Before Thursday's hearing, Howard claimed that the threat of jail time was significant because, even though it was technically for a probation violation, it ran counter to the city's narrative that it doesn't put people behind bars for violating the camping ban.
“They also want to be able to intimidate us,” Howard says. “[The city] wants to say, 'You can't get away with standing in solidarity with anyone on the street. You can't get away with taking any sort of direct action. We're going to intimidate you with jail time to make you stop.'"
Yet the threat did not come to pass. When Howard showed up at the courthouse on Thursday, she and her attorney — Andy McNulty, from the well-known civil-rights firm Killmer, Lane & Newman — found that the city prosecutors had offered a new deal: one year of renewed probation and thirty hours of community service.
Howard took the deal in return for acknowledging that she had violated her probation when she was cited for illegal camping in November 2016.
Before a packed courtroom, filled with dozens of supporters, both homeless and housed, Howard requested to make a statement on the record.
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“I'd like to clarify a few things,” she began. “That I violated my probation is clear…but what I have a problem with is that the [camping ban] law shouldn't exist in the first place. It should not be illegal to use a blanket.”
She went on to characterize the camping ban as a “survival ban,” causing supporters in the courtroom to break decorum and cheer.
In response, County Court Judge Clarisse Gonzales said that she appreciated Howard's statement, adding, “Judges can't say whether a law is right.”
Howard's probation will now be reinstated for one more year, during which time she has been instructed not to break any other laws. But in a final, defiant statement, Howard said that the likelihood that she or others will violate the camping ban during that period “remains high as long as it's on the books.”