Op-Ed: We Need to Learn From Denver's History With Homelessness

Brandon Marshall

A candidate for mayor said recently, “Denver is not perfect, but it’s close."

In addition to electing our leaders this May, voters will have to give thoughtful consideration to Initiative 300. Initiative 300 is not perfect, it won’t perfect what ails our city, but it is a response to a failure of the status quo.

The facts are simple. Our city needs over 50,000 affordable housing units. Over $9 million of the affordable housing tax fund sits unspent in city coffers. No funds from the marijuana tax-supported bond have actually been obtained. Over 5,000 persons are experiencing homeless.

On May 14, 2012, Denver City Council voted 9-4 to pass the ordinance known as the “camping ban." The ordinance:

prohibits “any person to camp upon any private property without the express written consent of the property owner.”

prohibits “any person to camp upon any public property except in any location where camping has been expressly allowed by the officer or agency having the control.”

according to the ban, “to camp means to reside or dwell temporarily in a place, with shelter,” and shelter means “any tent, tarpaulin, lean-to, sleeping bag, bedroll, blankets, or any form of cover or protection from the elements other than clothing.”
This ordinance has been at the center of our public discourse for seven years.

Our journey the past seven years has been paved with many accomplishments, and too many continuing challenges. People without homes cannot camp on the personal property of another. Therefore, we see homelessness in public spaces. People without homes cannot camp in public spaces unless authorized by the government.

And today the challenges include a shelter system not planned or developed to house over 5,000 persons experiencing homelessness day and night that is integrated with a strategy for housing affordability. Despite record taxpayer funding, little progress has been made to support the formation of people-public-private-partnerships to build and integrate a shelter system that provides housing and opportunity.

Leaders in our faith and non-profit communities have invested millions of dollars, and millions more than the city, in improvements to the city’s shelter system. There are shelters where beds, services and a sense of human dignity are offered to persons in need. Far more shelters, far more housing affordability, far more work is needed.

There is no way to spin, twist or turn the fact that people seek protection from the elements beyond clothes, eating when hungry, and sleeping when tired.  If you don’t have a decent, safe, affordable place to call home, where do you go?

The facts on Initiative 300 are:

“the people have a right to rest and shelter oneself from the elements in a non-obstructive manner."

“non-obstructive means a manner that does not render a passageway impassable or hazardous.”

“people can eat, share, accept or give free food in any public space where food is not prohibited.”
Homelessness in Denver
Chris Walker
Initiative 300 will need housing, business, foundation and city leaders to convene, converse and consider how we revise and devise our housing policies and investments to learn from our history and pave a new path to meeting our challenges ahead.

Only our democracy can preserve and defend our rights, only our democracy can restore the dignity, humanity and hope for all people, only our democracy can bring Denver together and perfect our city.

Denver is indeed a work in progress, and as we strive toward perfecting our city, our humanity and governance, this journey must be paved with facts, not fear; truths, not half-truths; proposals, not promises.

We are all proud of our accomplishments, and to acknowledge our challenges is not a dismissal of our success, but a recognition that the path to perfecting our city is to learn from our history.

A housing advocate and Denver resident.
Erik Soliván was profiled in a December 5, 2017, Westword cover story. He resigned as the city's director of the Office of HOPE the following February.

Westword occasionally prints op-eds on matters of interest to the Denver community. Have one you'd like to submit? Email [email protected]
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