Homeless Sweeps: Camping Ban Enforcement Still Up, DPD Data Shows

The latest data obtained by Westword from the Denver Police Department shows that enforcement of Denver’s unauthorized camping ordinance – better known as the urban camping ban — remains at elevated levels since regular sweeps of the homeless began in March.

Here is the updated chart: 

The urban camping ban remains one of the Hancock administration’s more controversial legacies. Advocates say that preventing people from sleeping outside criminalizes homelessness, forcing unhoused individuals into overnight shelters as their only legal option — despite the fact that some may not want to use shelters due to personal concerns about safety and health.

In defense of the camping ban, the city often points to a lack of citations and arrests that have been made using the ordinance – only seventeen total since 2012, and none in 2016 so far.

But in May of this year, Westword discovered that Denver is using the camping ban frequently, only issuing verbal “move on” orders and written warnings as opposed to arrests and citations. That has continued during the past four months, during which time there were 1,497 individual “contacts” – meaning that, at a minimum, a person was told by police officers that they had to leave their current location.

For historical perspective, this means that during the camping ban’s 51-month existence (it was established in June 2012), 17.5 percent of all enforcement actions have occurred in the past four months alone.

Similarly, the first eight months of 2016 represent over 40 percent of all enforcement actions since June 2012.

The vast majority of these actions are police officers verbally informing homeless individuals that they must dismantle their camps and move. According to protocol, the displaced are supposed to be offered services, such as checking into a shelter, although it is not clear how often services are accepted. 

As we explained in our May article:
Using the DPD data, Westword was able to determine how many verbal “move on” orders are being used to uproot homeless individuals from temporary encampments. According to Sonny Jackson, spokesman for the DPD, a line in the data table labeled “number of people contacted” shows the monthly summation of arrests, written warnings and verbal orders documented by police. “At minimum, [those in violation] are asked to move along,” Jackson explains. “First off, they’re offered services — they’re asked if we can assist or serve them in any way. And then, if they don’t want services, it goes to the next step of asking them to move along. That’s what happens a majority of the time.”

By subtracting the number of written warnings and arrests/citations from the “number of people contacted,” it becomes clear that “move on” orders represent the vast majority of enforcement actions regarding the camping ban. The camping ban’s protocol dictates that police officers must first offer anyone they contact for violating the ban the ability to connect with services such as shelters and medical treatment…but a police “contact” still indicates that someone has been told that they cannot stay in their current location, regardless of whether they accept offers for services.
Having a city-sanctioned ban on urban camping isn’t just controversial in Denver; tensions are running high in Boulder after that city recently began re-enforcing its own camping ban after a five-month suspension. Unlike Denver, however, Boulder has no overnight shelters available to homeless individuals until its first winter shelter opens on October 1, raising concerns about what, if any, alternatives are available to those found in violation of the ordinance.

Increasingly, such bans are being challenged in court on constitutional grounds.

Denver’s urban camping ban is one of the main grievances mentioned in a federal class action filing submitted by Denver lawyer Jason Flores Williams in August, which, if approved, could result in a suit against the city.

The U.S. Department of Justice also filed a statement of interest in a case challenging the camping ban in Boise, Idaho, saying that depriving someone of sleep through such actions is a violation of the Eighth Amendment's protections against cruel and unusual punishment. 

But, as was also mentioned in our May piece:
Even so, the Idaho case was dismissed, with U.S. Magistrate Judge Ronald Bush observing that there was “no known citation of a homeless individual under the ordinances for camping or sleeping on public property.” Like Denver, Boise enforced its camping ban without making arrests or issuing citations, and that served to protect the city in court.
Below, you can read all of the camping-ban enforcement data that was provided to Westword by the Denver Police Department, including breakdowns by district, ethnicity, and time of day:

Unauthorized Camping Thru Aug 2016

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Chris Walker is a freelancer and former staff writer at Westword. Before moving to the Mile High City he spent two years bicycling across Eurasia, during which he wrote feature stories for VICE, NPR, Forbes, and The Atlantic. Read more of Chris's feature work and view his portfolio here.
Contact: Chris Walker