Homeless

Denver Police Department Stops Enforcing Urban Camping Ban

The ban, in place since 2012, lets police ticket and even arrest individuals who refuse to move their tents or sleeping bags and enter one of the city's shelters.
The ban, in place since 2012, lets police ticket and even arrest individuals who refuse to move their tents or sleeping bags and enter one of the city's shelters. Sara Fleming
Following the landmark December 27 ruling declaring Denver's camping ban unconstitutional, the Denver Police Department has stopped enforcing the controversial ordinance while it waits on "further guidance from the Denver City Attorney's Office," according to DPD spokesperson Doug Schepman.

The ban, in place since 2012, lets police ticket and even arrest individuals who refuse to move their tents or sleeping bags and enter one of the city's shelters.

"The Department will continue to provide outreach and services to individuals experiencing homelessness," Schepman added in an email to Westword.

While the police department is waiting for legal advice, the city attorney's office is moving ahead with its own efforts to push back against the court declaration, file a notice of appeal of the ruling today, December 30.


In his December 27 ruling, Denver County Court Judge Johnny Barajas concluded that the camping ban violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, an argument activists have made for years.

"It's cruel and unusual to punish people, aka criminalize people, for doing things you have to do to survive when you don't have any other option," says Terese Howard, an activist with Denver Homeless Out Loud.

The city's notice of appeal argues that a statute can't be declared wholly unconstitutional if there are certain instances when applying the law wouldn't be unconstitutional. The notice of appeal continues: "The trial court erred by holding that no conceivable set of circumstances exist under which enforcement of [the camping ban] would not violate the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment."

During the hearing that preceded Barajas's ruling, lawyers argued over whether Denver has adequate shelter space. Numbers presented by the city showed that although shelters operate well below capacity on any given night, the city's current infrastructure couldn't house every homeless individual if they decided to enter shelters on the same night.

In his decision, Barajas cited testimony that concluded that "men with children, individuals with serious mental illness, persons banned from shelters, unaccompanied homeless youth, individuals with pets, LGBT individuals, and same sex partners have limited access to adequate shelter." The judge also included testimony regarding shift workers and other people seeking shelter after curfew being "turned away because of shelter curfews."

Barajas cited a landmark ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in regard to a similar case stemming from a law in Boise prohibiting sleeping outdoors. Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear that case, which opened the door for battles against camping bans in lower courts.

The Denver case originally came before Barajas after Jerry Burton, a previously homeless individual and activist, received a ticket in April for refusing to move his tent and be housed in a shelter for the night.
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.