This month, a bill will be introduced before the state legislature to outlaw anti-homeless ordinances enacted by municipalities across Colorado, including the urban-camping ban in Denver.
The bill — sponsored by House representatives Joseph Salazar, a Democrat from Thornton, and Jovan Melton, a Democrat from Arapahoe County/Aurora — will not be new to many legislators. The “Right to Rest” proposal has been struck down twice in the past, in 2015 and 2016, mostly along party lines, with Republican lawmakers saying that the bill goes too far in restricting municipalities’ regulation of their homeless populations without offering added services, like funding for shelters, in return.
Part of the legislation is a proposed "Homeless Bill of Rights," which includes things like the ability to sleep, rest and eat in public spaces without discrimination.
Last year, the bill was voted down 6-5 by the House Local Governance Committee. At that time, Melton described how Republican lawmakers on the committee made light of the issue, even proposing a tongue-in-cheek amendment that specifically added congressional offices to the list of places where the homeless had a right to sleep. Opponents of the bill also went to Salazar’s and Melton’s offices with blankets and pillows and asked, “Is this a place where we can sleep?”
This year, the two lawmakers expect more cooperation from their peers across the aisle – as well as a different outcome. In a conversation with Westword, Salazar and Melton described how they changed some of the language in the bill, as well as why they believe that attitudes toward anti-homeless ordinances have changed significantly over the past year.
It’s Salazar’s position that Denver’s homeless sweeps, ramped-up enforcement of its camping ban and the media attention it’s received following viral videos of homeless individuals having their blankets confiscated have underscored the seriousness of homelessness issues.
“This is a statewide concern now, because what they’re doing in Denver is pushing people out into other areas because of draconian ordinances,” says Salazar. “When we look at how [Denver’s] camping ban started, it was to address Occupy Denver. But looking out my window right now, I don’t see anybody from Occupy Denver still around. So now it’s created an unintended consequence, and we have to deal with it on the state level.
“My residents in Thornton and Representative Melton’s residents in Aurora are having to deal with what Denver is doing," Salazar adds.
Melton agrees. He says that Aurora’s City Council recently had to invest an additional $4 million in homeless services “because of the influx” from Denver.
But Melton and Salazar also point out that Denver is hardly the only municipality in Colorado enacting ordinances that criminalize homelessness. A study from the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law, released in 2016, showed that other cities like Colorado Springs, Fort Collins and Boulder have been spending millions of dollars enacting their own anti-homeless ordinances, such as restrictions against sleeping, resting and panhandling in public.
Melton explains that this year’s Right to Rest bill contains important changes from last year’s bill, including removing language that separately defines the rights of homeless individuals as opposed to people in general.
“We’re putting everyone on an equal playing field so that no one has more of a right to public areas than anyone else,” says Melton. “The coalition doesn’t want to preclude anybody from being able to shop on the mall or get into their office. It’s just saying that [the homeless] have no other place to go. Don’t criminalize [them] because there’s no other place to go.”
As for the argument that the bill doesn’t add any services to help the homeless, Melton fires back. “Unfortunately I think [businesses] are getting muddled up in a corrupted argument,” he says. “What we’re saying is that cities are criminalizing homelessness. People are getting records, they’re getting harassed. All we’re trying to do is get things back on par. Then, when we can do that, we can talk about money being saved on enforcement going to services."
Salazar is of the same opinion. “Think about the money that’s saved by not incarcerating people,” he says. “We can save that money and put it towards services."
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As for the bill’s prospects before the legislature, both lawmakers believe that it has a better chance this third go-around.
While the committee that the bill will be assigned to this year is still unknown, Melton points out that the Capitol has many new members following the November 8 election.
“We have a lot of new members…. This is one of the largest freshman classes coming into the house, so for a lot of them, the arguments are brand-new,” says Melton.
“They’ve been seeing stuff on the news about the sweeps,” he adds. “The environment is different this year."