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A Tale of Two Denvers: A City on the Rise, or a City Criminalizing Homelessness?

All eyes are on us, Denver. 

Much of my Facebook newsfeed last week was moan post after groan status about the fact that Denver was just ranked the "Best Place to Live in the U.S." Plenty of "stop moving here!" sentiments were shared, if only half-jokingly. Many of us who live in this city are experiencing "brand fatigue" when it comes to the shameless over-marketing of a supposedly idyllic Denver. We know it's great here. That's why we live here. 

But we've got much bigger problems than too many people finding out how allegedly wonderful the Mile High City is. Our most visible issue? A lack of affordable housing and an exacerbated and overloaded system that cannot provide enough transitional services for people in need. Instead of addressing the root causes of homelessness, the city has decided that hiding or pushing out our "undesirable" population without homes is the answer. 

After warning folks (via posted signage) that seeking refuge on the streets of downtown was illegal and that their belongings would be confiscated if they did not comply with the instruction to "move on" and off the streets, the city took action. Yesterday, people gathered near the Samaritan House at Park Avenue and Lawrence Street watched as Denver police officers and city workers took what few personal items they had and threw them in a trash truck.

The City of Denver had apparently decided that dehumanization and degradation were the most effective tactics to use against an already-vulnerable population. Maybe I'm missing something here, but I just don't understand how humiliation will end homelessness. To me, these literal warning signs posted in one of Denver's "hottest neighborhoods" essentially said, "Don't be homeless here. Be homeless somewhere else because it looks bad to the people who can afford to live in Denver now." Or in the words of the actual signs posted by the city:

Denver Revised Municipal Code Section 49-246

Pursuant to DRMC Sec. 49-246, public streets, alleys, sidewalks and other public spaces must remain free from all unauthorized encumbrances and obstructions.

Beginning March 8th, the city will remove all items encumbering the public spaces in this area. Please remove all personal items.

Any property removed will be temporarily stored* at 1221 Glenarm Place. You may reclaim any property taken pursuant to this order within 30 days of removal by appearing in person at this location. Monday through Friday from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. Property not claimed within 30 days from removal will be disposed.

(*For the record, the city may have taken some property and stored it, but they also pulled a trash truck up to the sidewalk downtown and threw personal belongings away.)

This was just one of several moves made in Colorado in recent years that work to effectively criminalize homelessness instead of treat it. The "removal" of humans from the street via a sweep because they are "encumbering the public space" will accomplish nothing. Why? Because we have nowhere to send them. And frankly, why are we trying to send people anywhere? There's a building boom happening in this great state that everyone wants to move to, so why aren't we creating affordable spaces for all Coloradans? People without homes are just like any other people — they desire a safe space, a warm space, a space to call their own. It's amazing how much we can take our personal space for granted when we've always had it.

As Denver Homeless Out Loud, an advocacy group working with people experiencing homelessness explains: "Houseless people through no fault of their own living in public space, have no choice for survival to use tarps, sleeping bags, tents, anything for shelter that currently violates the urban camping ban. The meager belongings that folks use for survival will be confiscated leaving them with nothing to use for their daily needs. This is a violation of their human rights." 

Homelessness and housing issues have never been solved by simply hiding or pushing out people in need. To me, this is merely a PR stunt by our city government to make Denver look better for those who can still afford to exist here. This theory was only intensified by the news coverage I saw roll in via social networks as the city began its crackdown yesterday. Gentle terms like "clearing out" and "cleanup" were used to describe a scene of total degradation — the have-nots losing everything they had for the sake of making a city look prettier for the haves. You can't throw people in a trash truck and haul them away, so making them disappear from a particular Denver neighborhood by tossing their humility in the garbage is the answer?

As the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado said in its statement about the sweep and seizure approach, "Denver residents are understandably discomforted and frustrated by the sight of so many poor and vulnerable people living in extreme poverty. The answer to that discomfort and frustration cannot be increased criminalization and draconian sweeps that push away and attempt to hide impoverished people out of sight."  

So, why do we have these homeless camps in the first place? Why aren't these folks in shelters? A good friend of mine who has been a social worker and homeless advocate in Denver for a long time explained some of the thought process behind it all via Facebook: 

Part of me understands the city's frustration with people remaining outside when there are unused shelter beds, which is part of the logic that prompted this renewed focus on moving people off the streets. But the city does not realize there are a lot of very good reasons people don't go to shelters. Here are some examples:

1) Shelters have lots of rules that can be confusing.
2) Many are not welcoming or affirming to trans/gender, non-conforming individuals.
3) They can be re-traumatizing (lack of personal space, lack of agency for your own schedule, etc.)
4) Many people have pets and/or partners they would have to part with to use a shelter bed.
5) Many people have carts or belongings they cannot bring into the shelter. 

We cannot expect that by offering a handful of services to those in need that we are truly addressing all of the complex problems around homelessness. The fastest growing population of those experiencing homelessness is women; shelters are often not the safest places for women. Denver needs to do more for its vulnerable, and working toward more options for low-cost, affordable, temporary, transitional and permanent housing should be at the top of our priority list. Spending an estimated $3.2 million criminalizing the homeless through actions like the human street sweep is not the answer. 

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So which is it? Are we a city of opportunity and prosperity? Or are we a city that treats our citizens in need like literal garbage? We can't have it both ways. Wake up, Denver. We have an opportunity to be both prosperous and humanitarian. It's up to us to decide what the future holds.

We have to decide: Are we going to be a city that wages a class war on its residents in need? Or are we going to be a city that puts our hearts and minds together to figure out how to help our most vulnerable?

Be my voyeur (or better yet, let me stalk you) on Twitter: @cocodavies

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