Denver Has Spent Millions Criminalizing Homelessness, DU Study Says

Denver is usually quick to point out all the money it's spending to help the homeless.

But what does the city spend to police them?

That's a question that a group of law students from the University of Denver's Sturm College of Law recently set out to answer.

In a report released this week titled "Too High a Price," they say that Denver spent $3.2 million enacting five different anti-homeless ordinances from 2010 through 2014.

These ordinances included measures banning unlawful camping; dictating park curfews and closures; limiting panhandling and solicitation on or near a street; and urinating in public.

In 2014 alone, those ordinances produced 1,884 total citations and cost the city $750,000 to enforce, according to the report. 

The report also looked across the state, and counted 351 anti-homeless ordinances between Colorado's 76 most populous cities. Six of them — Denver, Colorado Springs, Boulder, Fort Collins and Durango — are reported to have spent a combined $5.1 million enacting their local laws from 2010 through 2014.

“Police have a wide range of ordinances that they can use,” explains professor Nantiya Ruan, who supervised the students. “This report shows that we need statewide action.”
At a presentation yesterday, the professor and her students explained how their findings are meant to buttress a new “Right to Rest” bill, which will be introduced at the State Capitol next week. The proposed legislation, which is sponsored by state representatives Joe Salazar and Jovan Melton, looks to establish a “Homeless Bill of Rights” in Colorado, protecting individuals who want to rest or sleep in public spaces and vehicles.

“One of the reasons the Right to Rest Act failed [last year] was because they were unable to articulate the financial implications,” says Rebecca Butler-Dines, one of the DU students. With the release of their report, she hopes that the financial costs of enacting anti-homeless laws will sway state lawmakers to consider the Right to Rest Act. The legislation died in committee last year.

If anything, the students say, their findings actually under-report the true costs of police actions against the homeless. That's because the report only focuses on citations, court sentencing and jail time issued to homeless individuals in Colorado. The students were not able to obtain data for “move on” orders or the number of man hours that police spend patrolling areas frequented by the homeless, because the data wasn't always available, even after they filed open-records requests in 23 different cities.

For the City of Denver, for instance, the report shows just $7,623 being spent on the urban-camping ban during 2014, since the city only issued fifteen citations based on that ordinance that year.

“But while we only have fifteen citations, the impact is certainly higher than that,” says Ruan, citing anecdotes of “move on” orders associated with the urban-camping ban that she and her students heard about from organizations like Denver Homeless Out Loud, but which were not recorded or reported by Denver police.

Currently, there are 6,130 homeless men, women and children in the greater Denver area, as counted by the January 2015 Point-in-Time survey.

At a Q&A following the presentation on Tuesday, a number of homeless individuals and activists thanked the students for their findings, even if those findings were limited by the hard data available through municipal departments in Colorado. Whatever the full cost of policing the homeless may be, the DU students were adamant that the money could be better spent on permanent housing and recovery courts aimed to provide services rather than on incarcerating the homeless.  

In response, the city says that it has been, and will continue, making efforts in those areas. “We’re glad to see the University of Denver focusing on this very complex issue that affects so many in Denver and across the nation," says Regina Huerter, Director of Denver’s Office of Behavioral Health Strategies. "While the study looked at the issue on a statewide level, we’re proud to share that in Denver, we’ve already implemented all of the University’s recommendations and are doing so much more. For example, we’ve been using Recovery Court and Court-to-Community Mental Health Court to identify high frequency users of the court and hospital system and enroll them in programs to break that cycle...As for affordable housing, the city is currently implementing the Social Impact Bond program...In all, Denver will spend more than $47 million this year alone, to address homeless issues in the city because we value all members of the community and connecting those in need with appropriate services is a top priority.”