State Legislature Tries to Weaken Urban Camping Bans

Colorado lawmakers want to weaken camping bans across the state.
Evan Semón
Colorado lawmakers want to weaken camping bans across the state.
In a potential blow to Denver's unauthorized-camping ordinance, Colorado lawmakers are pushing a bill that seeks to weaken such bans across the state.

"If there is no true alternative for people, then you can’t really hold them civilly or criminally liable for staying outside," says Representative Adrienne Benavidez, a Democrat from Commerce City, who is a prime sponsor of the bill.

Benavidez and fellow Democrat co-sponsor Representative Jovan Melton of Aurora began working on the bill after reading Denver County Court Judge Johnny Barajas's opinion in a high-profile case in which he declared Denver's camping ban unconstitutional in December.

"[The bill] tries to codify those opinions," says Benavidez.

Their bill would prohibit any government, whether state, city or county, from criminalizing a person performing "basic life functions," like sheltering in a tent, sleeping in a sleeping bag, or eating on public property, unless that government can offer "alternative adequate shelter to the person and the person denies the alternative adequate shelter." The bill would also allow people to sleep in their cars, so long as they're legally parked on public property or parked on private property with the permission of the owner.

Benavidez, who is still searching for Republican co-sponsors, stresses that the bill doesn't prevent municipalities from enacting laws that relate to public safety and health, such as ordinances that prevent people from blocking sidewalks.

"I think it’s a fair bill. It’s just saying don’t infringe on people’s rights," Benavidez says.

She says the bill is all about pushing cities to "do better," a reference to the "We Can Do Better" slogan of the well-funded opposition campaign to Initiative 300. The initiative, which voters handily rejected in May 2019, sought to overturn Denver's camping ban and reverse other laws that advocates say criminalize homelessness.

Melton has unsuccessfully pushed "Right to Rest" bills in previous legislative sessions. This year's bill, titled "Basic Life Functions In Public Spaces," doesn't go quite as far as Melton's past bills, allowing cities to enforce a camping ban if adequate shelter space is available.

But the definition of "adequate" varies. Denver officials contend that people experiencing homelessness have access to enough shelter space. But Judge Barajas rejected that idea, nothing in his ruling that "men with children, individuals with serious mental illnesses, persons banned from shelters, unaccompanied homeless youth, individuals with pets, LGBT individuals, and same sex partners have limited access to shelter. ... Unless accompanied by a Denver police officer, persons with swing shift jobs and other persons who seek shelter after curfew are also turned away because of shelter curfews."

The Denver City Attorney's Office is appealing Barajas's ruling; in the meantime, the camping ban remains on the books. Mayor Michael Hancock, who has long championed the urban camping ban, declined to comment for this story.

Denver City Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca is intent on repealing the ban through council. She'd need eight other members to support a repeal bill so that it could survive Hancock's inevitable veto.