As cities across Colorado grapple with how to manage their ever-growing homeless populations, the policies they enact are coming under increased scrutiny. Consider the Right to Survive initiative, which could overturn Denver's controversial policy that bans people from sleeping outside if local voters approve it in May.
And today, December 12, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty and the ACLU of Colorado released a report that scrutinizes Durango's camping ban, with both legal watchdogs concluding that the local police have overused the ordinance to prevent anyone from sleeping outside, even if they're not covered by a blanket, tarp or tent (protective items which, under the Durango ordinance, constitute “camping”).
The ten-page report, A Year Without Sleep, takes the City of Durango to task for not allowing homeless residents to sleep anywhere outside while at the same time not offering adequate shelter options. “Citations clearly show that Durango police officers enforce the 'no camping' ordinance as a 'no sleeping' ordinance, making criminal the involuntary and harmless act that unhoused people cannot help but do: sleep,” write the report's authors, Rebecca Wallace and Helen Griffiths of the ACLU of Colorado.
The report includes testimonies from a number of Durango residents experiencing homelessness who describe being roused from sleep — even if it's laying their head down in a park during the middle of the day — by police. “I feel like I can't go anywhere,” says Chris Zeller. “After they tell me to move, I just pack up and move a quarter-mile away. They'll keep giving us notices, telling us that we have to leave.”
The report's authors contend that Durango's policing of sleep is part of a broader effort to push the homeless completely out of the city. “The City's practices in enforcing the camping ban are part of a years-long effort by City officials to protect tourists and housed residents from having to witness poverty and homelessness,” Wallace and Griffiths write.
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As evidence, they cite data obtained by researchers at the University of Denver that found that Durango doubled its camping citations between 2010 and 2014. Wallace and Griffiths continue: “Until ACLU intervention in 2014, Durango was actively enforcing an unconstitutional anti-begging ordinance as another means to clear the downtown area of people experiencing homelessness. Just last year, the Durango City Council passed a 'sit/lie' ordinance, making it 'unlawful for any person to sit, kneel, recline, or lie down in the downtown business area upon any surface of any public right of way.”
The report doesn't suggest that the ACLU of Colorado will sue Durango over its policy, but it urges the city to change its ordinances to “ensure compliance with the Constitution.” There are also some suggestions of alternative ways to curb homelessness, including mention of the Beloved Community Village — a collection of eleven tiny homes in Denver — which is the subject of a forthcoming documentary, The Right to Rest.
“A review of a year of camping citations makes plain that Durango police are actively pushing unhoused people out of city limits,” the report concludes. "City leaders are now in the process of rethinking and revising the city code as it affects people experiencing homelessness. They should examine the City’s past enforcement actions and chart a new, more effective and inclusive course.”
Update, December 12: Durango city attorney Dirk Nelson says that the city will take up the issue next year, adding: "The consideration of any amendments to the City Code will take the usual course, which begins with a public hearing on the issues. Assuming council desires to move forward with any amendments, then an ordinance is drafted for consideration by the council. The entire process takes about sixty days, so nothing will happen quickly."