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Urban camping ban: Denver Police Department promises restraint in enforcement

At a city council meeting yesterday afternoon, Police Chief Robert White outlined what he called a "passive" plan for the Denver Police Department to enforce the urban camping ban if it is passed. As drafted, the strategy calls for law enforcement to partner with outreach workers, and White promises no citations or arrests in the ban's potential first year unless approved by a DPD supervisor.

This plan of action is intended to create consistency within the application of the ban, which would make it illegal to camp on public or private property. In the meeting, city health and law enforcement representatives discussed both the bill and its potential effects, both socially and economically.

Discussion packed more people into the City and County Building than a similar meeting two weeks ago; Thanks to fire code, the overflow room needed an overflow room. Along the edges of the audience, orange buttons again flashed the message "Homes Not Handcuffs" across T-shirts.

Right now, the DPD maintains a homeless task force of four officers who "are more like social workers," said White, and they spend 75 percent of their time in District 6. Currently, 866 officers are Crisis Intervention Team-trained. If the ban is approved, White said every member of the force would be notified through a memo of its implications, and those first four would be influential in futher training.

"Our first goal is to remain very passive," White said. "The last thing our officers want to do is arrest someone for being homeless."

His assurance induced questions regarding the point of enforcement at all, in addition to inquiries regarding exactly how far enforcement goes. "The idea of move-along worked for sit-and-lie becase it was such a fixed area," Councilwoman Robin Kniech said. "Where does one move along to in this ordinance?" Once an individual is convinced to vacate a site, the role of law enforcement ends, but the role of the community is just beginning.

"At this point, I feel depressed about what we can do as a city about this issues," Councilwoman Mary Beth Susman conceded. Denver can't arrest its way out of homelessness, she said, but it can't build its way out, either. "A city can't take care of the economy."

White said the urban camping ban would make no financial mark on the DPD, and the Denver Sherriff's Department repeated the same -- unless enforcement demanded a second holding facility. In that case, the cost of housing would increase from $17 to $55 person per day. The city's paramedics also face negligible cost increases. "Generally, we do not know if (people) have a home when we respond to them," said Scott Bookman, chief paramedic at Denver Health.

Additional funds would be necessary across other aspects of the spectrum, however. Bennie Milliner, executive director of Denver's Road Home, laid out a proposal for enforcement through a plan called CAM (Contact, Asses, Mobilize) that calls for four new outreach workers, new and longer outreach shifts, a new central dispatch line with coordinators, and additional shelter, all with a total price tag of $350,000.

The plan also calls for additional service providers and transportation and the need for a 24-hour homeless resource, none of which come with estimates yet. "That's just the small-ticket list," said Kniech, who urged a more extensive tally as the council's decision-making deadline nears. "I really think it's not okay to throw out concepts without prices."

Page down to see a photo and more details about the meeting.

Yesterday's City Council meeting.
Yesterday's City Council meeting.

As the City Council approaches a scheduled final consideration date of May 7, early lines have already been drawn. The opposition draws attention to concerns the bill could criminalize the homeless by creating a chain of punishment: The default would follow the city standard of a maximum of $999 or a year in jail. Although this is rarely doled out, says assistant city attorney David Broadwell, some worry a fine would prove unmanageable for those without jobs and could lead to jail time if not paid. "That's almost like double jeopardy," councilman Paul Lopez says.

Stefan Stein, the CEO of Denver's Urban Peak, echoed Colorado Coalition For the Homeless president John Parvensky's call to action of two weeks ago: If affinity groups can not stop the ban altogether, he said, they would advocate that it be amended to forbid prosecution when either shelter or outreach are not available.

"My concern is that people who already spend a large portion of their lies in fear will spend even more of their time in fear as a result of tangling with the law," councilwoman Susan Shepherd said.

It remains true that the city does not boast enough available resources to host everyone who could be displaced by the ban. Right now, this supply includes 1,227 beds, a number that is scheduled to decrease by almost 400 as the season changes. In the meantime, Denver's Road Home is advocating that shelters stay open into the summer.

On the other side are those who favor the ordinance for its potential to keep the city's streets clean and improve local business while urging the homeless to seek shelter. "If not this, what?" asked councilman Albus Brooks, chief supporter of the ordinance. "We're pushing hard on this, but we're not saying what is that solution."

In the last five years of the sit-and-lie ordinance downtown, says White, zero arrests have been made. "I'm sure if you look at sit-and-lie, there were people who believed that ordinance would make people into criminals," White says." Of all the things to worry about, I think that would be the least."

More from our Politics archive: "Urban camping ban heats up packed city council committee meeting."