Denver cops start enforcing urban camping ban: No arrests or citations yet

After almost a week of delay, the Denver Police Department began enforcing the city's new urban camping ordinance yesterday afternoon. Although the ban legally took effect May 29, officers extended the wait in order to provide more educational opportunities about the ordinance and its legal implications. The overnight effects are already on view in Lincoln Park, which is emptier today than it has been since debate over the ordinance began months ago.

Under the law, it is now illegal for anyone to camp on public or private property in Denver without permission; the term "camping" is specifically defined via references to cooking or sleeping combined with a form of shelter. Downtown businesses and some city officials champion the ban as a means of protecting public health and safety and reducing homelessness. In contrast, numerous advocates for the homeless have accused the city of criminalizing individuals without providing enough city beds to make up the difference.

The hold on enforcement ended yesterday when officers were notified by supervisors to begin responding to violations. "There have been no arrests or citations," says Detective John White, spokesman for the Denver Police Department. "There were none yesterday afternoon and none overnight."

From here on out, anyone cited or arrested -- consequences Police Chief Robert White promises will be rare -- faces a maximum penalty of up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. The "Contact Assess Mobilize" protocol for enforcement follows a structured system police officers have used in training since Denver City Council voted to approve the ban.

This routine begins with written and oral warnings given to those who violate the ban. Kendra Kellogg, a social media advocate who stopped by the park last night as police enforced the law, says she witnessed police officers provide written warnings to three men, two of whom were later handcuffed and placed into custody. CBS4, also on the scene, reported the incidents as arrests, too, "but they had nothing to do with the ordinance," Detective White says.

In several previous discussions of the urban camping ban, Chief White has pledged no arrests or citations during the first year unless approved by a supervisor on the force -- and then only as a "last resort." Although violators may be arrested for outstanding charges once they are identified to officers, the department's goal is not to arrest anyone for camping. "From a law enforcement perspective, the absolute, unequivocally last thing we want to do as a police department is arrest someone for a camping violation," Chief White said earlier this year.

Since the ban went into effect last night, Sandy Sorenen, who identifies as homeless, has moved from Lincoln Park to what she calls "a more secretive location" further from downtown, where she believes she is less likely to receive police attention. "I hate shelters and don't feel safe there, so this is my only option," she says. "They're pushing us all out of where we feel comfortable, and there's nowhere else to go. It might be empty here soon, but that doesn't mean the city will be."

Others, such as a former Civic Center frequenter who asks to be ID'd only as Tommy, will move on to shelters or seek space at local churches, "but even prison is kind of the same as far as making us not homeless anymore," Tommy says. "I'll try out the other options, but if it doesn't work, I'll go to jail."

Although shelters across the city are preparing for an anticipated additional intake as a result of the ban, the Denver Rescue Mission's statistics remained the same last night as they have been for weeks. This is, in large part, because "we've been close to or at 300 men" at the Lawrence Street shelter "almost every night," says Alexxa Gagner, Director of Public Relations for the Denver Rescue Mission. And that's the facility's capacity.

Since August, the Lawrence Street shelter has featured 100 overflow beds that are supposed to go by June 30. Currently, the mission awaits news from city officials regarding whether it will be able to extend its use of the beds. In the meantime, organizers have restructured the shelter's intake system, increasing from one lottery drawing for beds to two "so that we can get as many people in each night as efficiently as possible," Gagner says.

More from our Follow That Story archive: "Urban camping ban: Police delay enforcement to continue education."

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Kelsey Whipple
Contact: Kelsey Whipple