Topic A at the outset of the final week prior to the runoff in the 2019 Denver mayor's race has been the urban camping ban and whether or not former RiNo Art District president Jamie Giellis, who's challenging incumbent Michael Hancock for the Mile High City's top electoral job, has reversed a pledge to repeal it.
As Giellis has pointed out in recent days, no mayor can ax the ban. Only Denver City Council or a vote of the people can make that happen. But she intends to use the bully pulpit of the mayoralty to push for the regulation to be replaced.
How vigorously Giellis has underscored this process in the past is a subject of contention. During a conversation earlier today, May 29, with Westword, she variously said that she had emphasized her inability to unilaterally dump the urban camping ban "in all of the last few debates" but claimed to have "always been consistent."
She also blamed Hancock for muddying the waters by suggesting that her antipathy for Initiative 300, also known as Right to Survive, a ballot issue about homelessness that was overwhelmingly defeated earlier this month, made no sense given her similar dislike of the urban camping ban.
"This has been twisted primarily because of the resounding opposition to Initiative 300," she said. "This has been a great point for the mayor to try to twist into, 'We're succeeding, because we have the camping ban in place.' But the truth is, people in Denver don't think we're succeeding. They're seeing more urban camping than ever."
The flip-flop charges surfaced after Giellis tweeted a video on May 26 in which she said, "As mayor, I cannot and will not repeal the urban camping ban."
Here it is:
Cut to a Denver Post-sponsored debate last night at the Denver Press Club (the final such verbal confrontation on the docket prior to the June 4 vote), during which Hancock noted that his campaign had released a video made up of "clip after clip after clip where you say, 'I will repeal the urban camping ban.'" Click to see the ad, entitled "Flip Flopping on the Urban Camping Ban."
Hancock added: "There are six words: 'I will repeal the camping ban.' Period. I don't have to clip that in any way. You said it. It's clear. Not once, but about twenty different times during the first phase of this election."
To that, Giellis said, "I, as mayor, cannot repeal the urban camping ban. That takes thirteen votes. And I think we need to talk to city council about whether or not they're going to move on that unless they have a clear plan and strategy about how to fix that."
In Hancock's view, such a move isn't necessary. "The urban camping ban is a valuable tool to not only make sure we didn't have encampments occur in the City of Denver," he said during the debate, "but also to help our police and our navigators and our outreach workers provide direct services, bring direct services to those who are homeless. The number-one tenet under the urban camping ban is to offer direct services. And then when that is refused, or if that is refused, then it's a progressive process to move folks to greater stability in terms of shelter. We do monitor the number of shelter beds every night. We also monitor the number of people we're coming into contact with. And there are very few instances where we find that there aren't enough beds to move people to that we come into contact with."
He also suggested that the situation has improved over the course of his two terms in office.
"When I became mayor in 2011, the reality is, we were waking up every morning with 75 to 175 people on the 16th Street Mall or on our tree lines," he estimated. "And when there were encampments that occurred, they became very unhealthy and unsanitary — unsafe conditions. So the urban camping ban became our tool to allow us to move in and help people to realize better stability and better opportunity."
In his view, "There's nothing compassionate in arguing for people sleeping outdoors. I will argue that every day for the rest of my life — that we can and must do better for people who are homeless in the city."
Continue to see the debate. The conversation about the urban campaign ban gets under way at around the forty-minute point.
In her conversation with Westword, Giellis pushed back at Hancock's assorted attacks.
"I've said at the debates that I recognize it is a city council process — that either the city council or the voters would need to repeal the camping ban," she stressed. "And I don't support camping in parks and public spaces. I didn't support Initiative 300. I just want to focus on a much more sophisticated approach to homelessness. I recognize completely that there is going to need to be a clear plan on getting people to services or temporary shelter before we do anything around policy — and we need real policy that works. But that's a process in which the mayor has to work with council and the community. And the reality is, if this administration had a plan that worked, we wouldn't be having this conversation."
On the repeal matter, she said, "The mayor has brought this up continuously, and my response is, as mayor, I cannot repeal the urban camping ban. It's an act of the city council or an act of the voters. But at the end of the day, I can effect leadership and budget as mayor and ensure we put together the right approach to housing and services to move the needle away from the current mayor's failed leadership on this issue. Ultimately, the approach we've taken as a city is to push the problem. We've pushed it into neighborhoods. We've spent more resources moving the homeless around the community than we have actually moving them to permanent solutions."
According to Giellis, "We've talked a lot in this campaign about our ideas, and we know it takes a lot of partners to address these issues. And I've talked about how the city council or the voters are the only groups that can repeal the ban because the mayor has called it out. He's said to me, 'I'm glad she recognizes what her powers will and won't be,' because I've explained that I can't singlehandedly do that. Nothing can happen or will happen on this issue until there's a clear strategy about how we're going to address all the failures in this administration. We've got to get a leadership team in place, set clear benchmarks and align our partners so that we can tackle this problem and get people off our streets."
She acknowledged that "this is not a black-and-white issue. This is a recognition that good policy has a lot of nuance to it. But the challenge in talking about this is that I was a vocal opponent of Initiative 300 because it was bad policy. I voted against it because I, like everybody else in this society, do not want to see people camping in our parks, camping on our streets, being pushed into neighborhoods, because there's no dignity in that. But Initiative 300 was largely sold as a repeal of the camping ban, and it was much more than that."
In her view, "It's easy for the mayor to focus on one piece and say, 'Ms. Giellis wants to take away the one part [the camping ban] that's helping us.' But that's not what's happening. We need leadership. We need to actually tackle the problem and meet people where they are. We need to bridge the gap for the increasing number of families on the street and get them into stable housing and connect them with services they need to thrive in an increasingly expensive city."
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.