Homelessness being criminalized in Ballpark neighborhood? Advocacy group says yes

Patricia Calhoun's recent post about the Ballpark Neighborhood Association opposing a homeless-day-center proposal prompted a huge debate among Westword readers, with residents decrying a homelessness situation that's allegedly getting out of control pitted against folks who feel people down on their luck are being ostracized and turned into scapegoats for endemic societal problems.

Now, the advocacy organization Denver Homeless Out Loud has leaped into the issue, arguing that a $1.8 million security plan that will add ten new police officers to patrol the Ballpark neighborhood, LoDo and the 16th Street Mall represents a new effort to criminalize homelessness.

In recent weeks, the Denver City Council's Government and Finance committee approved what's described in this document as a "request to appropriate supplemental funds in the amount of $1.8M for the Denver Police and Sheriff's Departments to increase the security presence on the 16th Street Mall, LoDo and the Ballpark neighborhood."

This proposal must be blessed by the full city council to go into effect, and if it is, a Denver Homeless Out Loud release notes that "$900,000 would be spent to add ten police officers to patrol the so-called 'hot spots' of the 16th St Mall, the Ballpark neighborhood (where St Francis Center, the Rescue Mission, Samaritan House, and many other services for homeless people are located), and Lodo. Another $900,000 would be spent on estimated increased 'arrest and detention costs.'

"Alongside this $1.8 million of city budget, the Downtown Denver Partnership has already spent $100,000 of their own money to hire one additional officer per block along the 16th St Mall," DHOL points out.

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The group's release maintains that "It would be unconstitutional discrimination for city officials to direct the police force specifically to target people who are homeless because of their housing status. So instead, they explain that it is not about homelessness itself but about 'criminal activity.'" Examples of the latter mentioned by Denver Police Chief Robert White include "panhandling, smoking weed and public urination" -- and DHOL adds that laws forbidding "sleeping in public," "sitting/lying down along the 16th Street Mall" and "'loitering' in various areas" are also expected to be enforced.

Denver Homeless Out Loud interprets the offenses to be targeted as a pretext to attack the homeless. But rather than siccing ten new cops on such people, the group offers a series of alternate suggestions. Here are some excerpts from its proposal, with the bold-print words in the original:

If panhandling is a problem, the solution would be for people who are panhandling because they lack money to be offered employment or a disability check that actually meets their needs. • 58 people could be hired full time at $15 hr for a year for the $1.8 million the City is proposing to spend on police. For example, people could be hired to clean the streets if that is a real issue. (In New York City, San Rafael (CA) and elsewhere, programs successfully employ unhoused people to remove trash, shovel snow and keep downtown business areas clean. See AceNewYork.org, doe.org and streetsteam.org.)

If public urination is a problem, the solution would be to have accessible public bathrooms for people to urinate in.

• In Seattle it costs $600,000 per year to maintain one "Urban Rest Stop" which have bathrooms, showers, washing machines, and basic toiletries. Denver could maintain three "Urban Rest Stops" at that price with the 1.8 million proposed to spend on policing. (See http://www.urbanreststop.org/ for more information)

• In Portland it costs $90,000 to purchase and install one Portland Loo (a solar powered toilet and sink) and $14,400 to maintain it for a year. Denver could buy 17 Portland Loos and maintain them for a year for the $1.8 million. (See https://www.portlandoregon.gov/bes/59293 for more information)

• Right here in Denver's own Washington Park the city is spending $160,000 for bathrooms (See http://www.westword.com/2014-05-15/news/rangers-in-denver-parks/) Why can the city afford to upkeep and clean the bathrooms in Wash Park and not downtown where people who are homeless have no place to use a restroom?

If sleeping in public places is a problem, the solution would be to offer people housing they can afford.

• 206 single people could be given a studio apartment for a year for the $1.8 million to be spent policing people sleeping outside. (If someone has no income, rent for a studio apartment would cost the city about $725 per month, including utilities, or $8700 a year)

• 360 "Tiny Homes" could be built at $5,000 a piece (as is done in Madison, Wisconsin) for this 1.8 million (See http://occupymadisoninc.com/ or http://quixotevillage.com/ for more information)

DHOL holds weekly meetings at 4:45 p.m. Wednesdays. The location is the American Friends Service Committee room in the Court House Square apartment building, located at 901 West 14th Avenue.

Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.

More from our Calhoun: Wake-Up Call archive circa April 28: "Ballpark neighbors against homeless-day-center proposal take their protest to city council."

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