Michael Hancock praises early impact of urban camping ban

Just a few weeks after Denver began enforcing its urban camping ban, Mayor Michael Hancock said the new policy is going well, adding that some of the folks who were sleeping on the street have since gone to live with friends and family.

And they haven't gone to the suburbs, he said.

Hancock, speaking today in Breckenridge as part of an annual Colorado Municipal League conference, took questions on the polarizing law that makes it illegal for anyone to camp on public or private property in Denver without permission. Some officials and businesses have promoted the ban as an important public health measure and effort to reduce homelessness, while other advocates view the new policy as overly punitive and hurtful to homeless residents in Denver who have nowhere else to go.

For his part, Hancock -- who signed the camping ban into law in May -- told municipal leaders from across the state that the law is necessary and is going well so far, as he anticipated.

"As long as we have that option to say you can sleep outdoors...they'll never seek out any other options -- whether it's family or the mental health or drug addiction services if necessary to help them get healthy," he said in a Q&A lunch session with CML executive director Sam Mamet.

"Secondly, I find nothing humane -- never did -- about saying to someone, 'It's okay for you to sleep outdoors, because we don't have enough shelter beds and we know it's fifteen degrees outside,'" he continued. "There's nothing humane about that.... I'd rather go for broke and open up a church and let you sleep in the basement than to say to you it's okay to be outdoors."

That and it's expensive, he said.

"The enormous public cost that we experience in Denver behind the...young people who showed up every summer to sleep on our 16th Street Mall," the mayor said. "These are not necessarily homeless kids.... They come to Denver. They don't even live in Denver. They hitchhike or they drive in cars together. They sleep on our Mall -- it became a cultural thing. We were spending an enormous amount of resources policing and protecting these young people, because we didn't have the authority to move them along."

He also took the opportunity today to criticize Occupy Denver's impact locally -- in the process partly contradicting claims made by his spokesperson last October that the camping ban proposal was unrelated to the OD protests.

"Occupy Denver cost Denver a lot of money," Hancock said. "It wasn't just about the policing costs. We had a historic stone that was urinated on and defecated on that will never go back to being the way it was before they moved in, and they trashed our historic Civic Center Park."

After seeing the damage they did, he wanted to avoid that situation in the future, he added. "When I thought about the enormous cost we incurred to deal with that, because we didn't have this one little tool to say we can force you to move on, I knew we had to put a tool in the tool chest to make sure that never happened again."

It has since been a useful tool for the police and homeless outreach workers, he said.

Hancock said that the city is still committed to homeless programs and has funneled in $51 million in programs over the last seven years, including affordable and transitional housing, new shelter beds and mental health and drug addiction services.

Addressing a question raised by advocates, he said that the city is tracking where these homeless residents have gone.

"What we have seen when we drive down the streets now, you don't see them camping. But they have not showed up in our suburban neighborhoods. We do have some that have gone into our shelters," he said. "A lot of them, we understand, have gone to friends and families, and that's what I initially thought would happen."

He then praised the reasoning behind the policy, stating, "This solution to homelessness is not just a public-sided argument. That's someone's brother, someone's sister, mom, father, uncle. We know that if people step up and say, 'We must take responsibility, there will be solutions.' We're starting to see that come to fruition."

After the luncheon, Hancock elaborated in a conversation with Westword.

When asked what the city is doing to keep track of this population and the impact of the ban, Hancock told us: "We get a daily report on how many contacts we are making on the street... The contacts are the minimum, on a daily basis.... I think we've had less than a hundred.... We get a sense of how many shelter beds are being filled, where people are going. We're talking to our communities in the neighboring cities to find out if they're seeing more -- they're not. So we're staying on top of that."

He added that the anecdotes he hears from the city's police officers and outreach workers is that more people are going to friends' houses or relatives' houses.

"So far, it's promising," he said. "Obviously, we're going to continue to monitor and continue to educate -- that's the big piece -- and continue to find resources for people."

Does he think critics will come around?

"With any policy we have, we just have to continue to monitor it, continue to look at the data, and continue to talk to folks and see where they are," he said. "We'll look back on it and evaluate. We do that with every policy we have in the city."

More from our News archive: "Denver cops start enforcing urban camping ban: No arrests or citations yet."