Denver Still Has Plenty of Laws That Criminalize Homelessness

Homelessness is still criminalized in Denver, critics say.
Homelessness is still criminalized in Denver, critics say. Brandon Marshall
Denver City Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca is exploring a repeal of the city's urban camping ban, a tall order since she'll will need nine votes on council rather than the typical seven in order to override a veto by Mayor Michael Hancock.

The urban camping ban is already on life support after a Denver County Court judge declared it unconstitutional in December. The City of Denver is appealing the ruling, meaning that at least for now, the ban is still on the books.

Denver has used laws like the camping ban and those that allow for homeless encampment cleanups — known more commonly as sweeps — to keep people from living on the streets.

And there are plenty of other laws on the books that criminalize homelessness.

"There are a number of other laws [that] are specifically targeted at criminalizing homelessness [and others] which have a disproportionate effect on people who are homeless," says Terese Howard, an activist with Denver Homeless Out Loud.

According to a study from the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, Denver has fifteen laws that criminalize homelessness, even though some, like the 2017 ordinance prohibiting smoking along the 16th Street Mall, don't explicitly target homeless individuals.

According to the study, those fifteen laws include:

• camping on public property
• panhandling
• solicitation on streets and highways
• swimming or bathing in streams
• urination or defecation
• restriction on park hours
• sitting in a public right-of-way
• storing items in a public right-of-way
• failure to remove belongings from public areas
• trespass
• overnight residing
• congregating in large groups
• smoking in public places

From 2014 through 2017, the DPD issued 17,803 citations for violations of the fifteen laws, according to the 2018 study. Of those citations, 10,733, or a little over 60 percent, were issued to homeless individuals, who make up less than 1 percent of the population, notes Nantiya Ruan, a DU law professor who edited the study.

"All of those [ordinances] are specific to places that people who are homeless tend to be," says Ruan.

Some of the other laws that Ruan and others argue criminalize homelessness prohibit things like panhandling, bathing in streams, and storing items in a public right-of-way. A law enacted in 2005 prohibits "sitting or lying down in the public right-of-way" in the Downtown Denver Business Improvement District, which includes LoDo, the Denver Performing Arts Complex and the 16th Street Mall. Another law prohibits "obstruction of streets or other public passageways" in Denver as a whole.

People who set up tents in city parks face possible prosecution for breaking the park curfew, which kicks in after 11 p.m.

"The sit-lie ordinances, the camping ban — it's all part of the same impetus by city councils across Colorado to have people who are visibly poor be invisible," Ruan said at an October court hearing about the constitutionality of the camping ban.

There are also various health codes that homeless-rights activists say are also used to target individuals experiencing homelessness. "When there's not a 24/7 restroom...then a public urination [law] or a defecation [law] can be used against people who are homeless in a disproportionate way," Ruan said at the court hearing.

Many of these regulations could have been challenged had Initiative 300, known as the Right to Survive Initiative, passed in May 2019. The measure would have overturned the camping ban and also required the city to repeal laws that discriminated against homeless individuals. However, a well-funded opposition to the proposal contributed to its landslide defeat.
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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.