The organizers of a ballot initiative to overturn Denver's urban camping ban were by no means confident of victory as the polls closed on election night. They'd been outspent by a 25-to-1 margin. They'd seen polling that suggested they were in for a disappointing night. They'd been disappointed before.
Still, many supporters who gathered to watch results come in at the Right to Survive campaign's offices in north Denver on Tuesday, May 7, were taken aback when the first wave of results was made public just after 7 p.m. With over 90,000 ballots counted, the measure trailed by nearly 70 points.
"This is a massive disparity that we will not be able to overcome, unfortunately," campaign manager Raffi Mercuri told the small crowd, as some in the room broke into tears. "I’m pretty shocked.”
As of Wednesday morning, the latest round of results showed the Right to Survive proposal, which appeared on ballots as Initiative 300, headed for an overwhelming defeat, with just over 17 percent voting for the initiative compared to nearly 83 percent against.
The measure would have enshrined into city law a right to rest, shelter, and distribute and accept food in Denver's public spaces, overturning a 2012 ordinance that critics say criminalizes homelessness.
Opponents of Initiative 300 called it “inhumane” and argued that it would hurt, not help, people experiencing homelessness. But they also issued dark warnings of city parks and neighborhood sidewalks overrun by “large encampments” that could “contaminate our waterways” and lead to “outbreaks of communicable diseases.”
"It was based on fear," says Terese Howard, an organizer with Denver Homeless Out Loud, one of the groups behind the Right to Survive. "And based on a long history of discriminating against folks who don't have housing. They believe that if you're on the streets, it's your own fault, and you should be feared and criminalized, as opposed to treated with basic rights and dignity."
Together Denver, the committee that led the opposition to the measure, received major contributions from civic organizations like Visit Denver and the Downtown Denver Partnership, as well as a wide range of Denver businesses and interest groups, including the National Association of Realtors, MDC Holdings, Xcel Energy and the Colorado Rockies.
Overall, Together Denver raised more than $2.3 million through the end of April, according to campaign finance reports. That’s over half of the $4 million appropriated for “Homeless Services” in the City of Denver’s 2019 budget.
The Right to Survive campaign reported raising just over $90,000.
"We had over 400 volunteers," says Mercuri. "The people who put this on the ballot, the real proponents of this, worked day after day, for nothing, just to make sure the needs of the people on the streets were met. To be in the presence of people with that kind of tenacity is a privilege. And I would absolutely do this again knowing the results."
Although exactly what would have happened if Initiative 300 had passed was a matter of some debate, the measure aimed to overturn the urban camping ban, a city ordinance enacted in 2012 that prohibits sleeping or sheltering using “any other form of cover or protection from the elements other than clothing” on public property.
Unhoused people are rarely cited or arrested for violating the ordinance, and supporters of the ban say it’s necessary to direct police to make contact and connect people with shelters and other services.
But a 2013 report from Denver Homeless Out Loud found that two-thirds of unsheltered people said the camping ban had forced them to sleep in “more hidden and unsafe locations,” and felt more stressed and less secure since the ban was enacted.
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The number of people who have died while experiencing homelessness has risen sharply in recent years, to a record 233 deaths in 2018, according to the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.
Tuesday's defeat wasn't the first time supporters of the Right to Survive initiative faced a disappointing result; five different versions of a similar proposal at the state level, the Colorado Right to Rest Act, have been introduced by progressive lawmakers in the last five years, only to be withdrawn or killed in committee each time. But organizers say they're not giving up.
"We're used to losing," says Howard. "We'll be back — in the city council chambers, in the state [legislature], in the courts and on the streets."
"We're going to hold the people who were elected tonight accountable," says Mercuri. "And we'll hold the people that funded our opposition accountable. They spread a message that this wasn't the solution, and that 'We Can Do Better' — so it's time to do better."