City of Denver Sues Over Homelessness Ballot Initiative

Michael Emery Hecker
Denver is suing over Initiative 303.
On October 15, the City of Denver filed suit in Denver District Court, trying to block provisions of Initiative 303, a measure on the November ballot that would allow a Denver resident to sue the city if it doesn’t respond to a citizen complaint about a homeless encampment and “take enforcement action” within 72 hours.

"The proposed enforcement aspect of Initiative 303...relates to Denver’s basic administrative functions in how it carries out and enforces its laws, specifically the [unauthorized camping ordinance], and, as such, is an unlawful initiative," the Denver City Attorney's Office wrote in its October 15 complaint, which names members of the I-303 petitioners' committee, including Garrett Flicker, the sponsor of the measure and chair of the Denver Republican Party, as defendants.

The measure, which landed on the ballot with the assistance of sizable dark-money contributions from Defend Colorado, would also allow the city to sanction a maximum of four safe-camping sites on public land across Denver. Denver currently has the authority to sanction unlimited safe-camping sites on both public and private property. Only two safe-camping sites exist in Denver right now, however, with both located on private property: one in the parking lot of a Park Hill church, and one on the Regis University campus. But more are likely on their way, according to service providers who have run the safe-camping sites.

Denver's lawsuit acknowledges that "not all aspects of Initiative 303 may be unlawful or ripe for" the district court's "pre-election review." But the court "has the power, in a pre-election review, to declare unlawful and sever [a specific] subsection...which exceeds the legislative authority of voter initiatives and improperly infringes on Denver’s basic administrative functions."

The City of Denver notes in its filing that it also "anticipates additional post-election challenges to Initiative 303 should it be approved by voters."

In 2012, Denver passed an unauthorized camping ordinance, also known as the camping ban. The ordinance prevents homeless individuals from sheltering outside using tents or sleeping bags. Denver cites the camping ban and also ordinances related to the public right-of-way when conducting sweeps of encampments.

But Denver’s handling of homeless encampments has generated numerous legal challenges. In late 2019, Judge William J. Martinez of the U.S. District Court of Colorado signed off on a settlement between homeless plaintiffs and the City of Denver that requires the city to provide a week’s notice before conducting encampment sweeps. And in January of this year, Judge Martinez issued a preliminary injunction in relation to another lawsuit involving the sweeps, reaffirming the mandate that the city provide a week’s notice before conducting sweeps. And that conflicts with the time frame outlined in Initiative 303.

“At this time, the city is unable to estimate the potential litigation costs the city may encounter if the 72-hour enforcement period is implemented,” reads a section on the financial impact of Initiative 303 in the Denver Elections Division ballot guide.

Initiative 303 is “really focused around two main areas: tackling the homelessness epidemic in a humanitarian manner and holding the city accountable," Flicker told Westword this summer. But service providers have challenged the measure, arguing that it could further criminalize homelessness.

In response to the current lawsuit, Flicker offers the following: "What a stunning waste of taxpayer money and resources. Instead of investing time and money into fixing the homeless problem in our city, Mayor Hancock is suing one of his own citizens to stop us from voting. They obviously believe that this initiative is shining too bright a light on the city’s own failures in helping the homeless and protecting residents and neighborhoods."

See the city's full complaint here.