At last Thursday's meeting of Denver's Commission on Homelessness — the first meeting of the group since last November — Denver City Councilman Albus Brooks, who wrote the proposed ordinance to ban "urban camping" in Denver, tried to explain that this proposal hadn't come out of the blue. "We've been talking about this bill since August," he said.
That was the wrong thing to say in a room filled with shelter directors and homeless advocates, some of them wearing "Homes Not Handcuffs" buttons. If the camping-ban ordinance had been in the works for eight months, they asked, why didn't they see the proposal any sooner? "I know you know how to reach me," said Terrell Curtis, executive director of the Delores Project, a women's shelter. "We need to slow this down." At that, the packed room erupted in applause.
Mayor Michael Hancock tried to defend the proposal. "We're not trying to hurt people," he said, calling the notion that the ban would criminalize the homeless "absurd" and "insulting." Allowing people to sleep on the streets is "morally inhumane," the mayor continued, explaining that during the winter, when the city dispatched vans that would take homeless people to a shelter, "we had no way to compel them to go with us." The camping ban, he said, would give the city a tool to make people safe.
But the city's motivations aren't all humanitarian; they're also economic. Like Brooks, Hancock said he had walked the 16th Street Mall and seen "one hundred to two hundred people" preparing to camp out, many of them "vagabond" youth from out of town. And like Brooks, he's received e-mails from people who are tired of being pestered by the homeless when they go to the theater, and from others who are afraid to live downtown.
While some commission members quarreled with Hancock's view that the ban would benefit homeless people — Tom Luehrs, president of the St. Francis Center, which provides shelter and other services, said that homeless people interpret the proposed ban to mean they're disliked and unwanted — much of the discussion focused on the perceived secrecy and behind-closed-doors nature of how the proposal came about. Councilwoman Debbie Ortega said the conversation should have started with the forty-member commission, not with city council. Councilwoman Judy Montero said the bill was kept hush-hush in city council until the last minute.
Although Bennie Milliner, executive director of Denver's Road Home, admits the city cannot shelter everyone who would be displaced by the ordinance, he says his organization is working on a plan to increase beds, which also calls for a central dispatch hotline and the city's first 24-hour homeless resource center. Denver Chief of Police Robert White has promised a "very passive" approach by law enforcement, which would include no citations or arrests in the ordinance's first year unless approved by a supervisor.
But few in the room were satisfied with the city's plans. Leslie Foster, executive director of the Gathering Place, a daytime drop-in center for homeless women, made a motion that council delay voting on the ban until a commission subcommittee can meet to discuss the impacts of such a ban and the resources and funding that would be needed to mitigate them. It passed unanimously — but is not binding. Denver City Council is still slated to vote on the proposal May 7.
Last week, Westword sat down with Albus Brooks, the proposal's main proponent on council, in the conference room of his District 8 office. The room was hand-painted by Denver children, who provide some of his inspiration, he says.
Westword: How did the idea begin?
Albus Brooks: When I first got onto council, one of the first issues people were talking about was we have an incredible homeless issue. The homeless providers were saying, "We need to expand. We need to grow. We need to provide more services." Businesses and residents were saying, "We've never seen it this bad." One of the first things I saw were multiple, multiple, multiple responses from conventioneers where the first and second thing they'd say was, "Do something. I thought you guys were supposed to be the leaders. You're nationally renowned in your effectiveness towards homelessness."
You can't implement good policy unless you understand it from a grassroots level. So I went to see it for myself on the mall, hung out in a hoodie at Triangle Park, walked down the Platte. It's not 100 percent what anyone has been saying. It's not 100 percent hurt and broken and vulnerable. It's not 100 percent travelers. I have spent two-thirds of my time working and visiting and learning about our homeless issue in Denver since July.
That's when you counted 178 homeless people?
On the mall, yes. Now, the Downtown Denver Partnership has ambassadors and outreach workers who have counted up to 200, so on that night that's just where it was.