Denver's homelessness epidemic has been in the headlines again in recent weeks after the city dismantled a large tent city on October 29 consisting of well over a hundred campers in the Ballpark neighborhood, and advocates, led by Denver Homeless Out Loud, announced that the Right to Survive initiative, which aims to let people legally rest, share food and shelter themselves in public spaces, has been approved for the May 2019 ballot.
Both news items are intricately related to Denver's unauthorized-camping ordinance, better known as the urban camping ban, through which the city has prohibited anyone from sleeping in public spaces or on private property without the owner's consent.
The city adopted the ban in 2012, and it's been controversial ever since, with civil-rights watchdogs such as the ACLU of Colorado charging that the ordinance effectively criminalizes homelessness. But Mayor Michael Hancock and the ordinance's original sponsor, City Councilman Albus Brooks, have argued that the camping ban is designed to persuade people who are experiencing homelessness to use overnight shelters, which the city says are safer than living on the streets and have adequate space for everyone. Still, hundreds of people experiencing homelessness choose to sleep outside.
In light of these recent developments, Westword made a public-records request to obtain the latest camping-ban enforcement statistics from the city's Department of Public Safety.
From January through September 2018, police officers made 3,195 individual “contacts” with campers — interactions that include, at a minimum, officers telling someone who's violating the ban to pack their belongings and move to another location. That number is down slightly from the 3,436 contacts made during the first nine months of 2017, but significantly more than the number of contacts made during 2014 and 2015 (see detailed charts below).
Only one individual has been arrested in 2018 for a camping ban violation — the lowest number in four years — and the city has given out fewer written warnings so far (21 from January through September) than in 2016 and 2017.
In May 2016, we were the first media outlet to obtain data about the urban camping ban's enforcement, including how often — and where — it is used to displace people. Our reporting revealed that the camping ban is enforced by police officers primarily through verbal “move on” orders rather than through issuing tickets or making arrests. “Street Checks," as the city calls them, refer to an officer enforcing the camping ban in response to one or more campers. According to protocol, officers are supposed to offer services like shelters or, if needed, transportation to a hospital, before issuing warnings or — only as a last resort and with permission from a DPD sergeant — arresting a camper.
But the city revised how it enforces the camping ban in February of this year. In a training bulletin we obtained, officers are now told not to seize any belongings owned by campers, but rather take pictures of items such as tents and sleeping bags.
Critics of the camping ban, including Terese Howard of Denver Homeless Out Loud, charge that the revisions have not occurred in a vacuum, but rather are in response to backlash that the city received following a pair of viral videos in December 2016 showing DPD officers confiscating camper's blankets, and the result of an ongoing lawsuit in federal court that is examining the constitutionality of the city's homeless sweeps.
The revised training bulletin notes at the top: “This ordinance does not make the status of homelessness illegal; rather, it prohibits the specific conduct of unauthorized camping.”
It also includes a detailed flow chart explaining how officers are supposed to navigate interactions with campers and step up enforcement in cases of non-compliance. The flow chart includes the new directive not to take anyone's belongings: “When enforcing this ordinance, Denver police officers will not seize tents, tarps, blankets, sleeping bags, or other camping related items. Evidence of unauthorized camping will instead be documented through video and photographic means."
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According to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, citywide camping bans are common in at least one-third of major U.S. cities, but increasingly such ordinances are being challenged in court. In early September, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the camping ban in Boise, Idaho, was unconstitutional. The City of Boise is now appealing that decision, raising the possibility that the case will work its way up to the United States Supreme Court.
Below are the documents obtained by Westword, including a detailed spreadsheet of camping-ban enforcement and the revised police training bulletin from February: