“Tomorrow there is supposed to be a blizzard. There will be wind all day long," declared Terese Howard to the audience at the Oriental Theater on Tuesday night. “Think for a second about what you’re going to do to protect yourself from the weather, to stay warm, to stay dry, and survive…and now think as if you’re on the streets. What will you do? Folks who are on the street tomorrow will need protection from the elements to survive."
At Tuesday night’s rally and benefit concert for the Right to Survive Initiative, which will be presented as I-300 on May’s municipal ballot, the Denver Homeless Out Loud activist emphasized how no one in Denver, including the city’s homeless population, is allowed to use protective items such as tarps, tents or blankets to shield themselves in public — even during a weather event like a “bomb cyclone.” That’s according to Denver’s urban camping ban, which has been on the books since 2012. (The city insists that, even though some individuals resist shelters for a variety of reasons, the homeless use shelters instead of staying outside. On Tuesday night ahead of the anticipated blizzard, Denver's Road Home listed shelter options for those wanting to escape the storm.)
“This is the first time in the nation that an initiative has been brought to the people that says that homelessness is not a crime," Howard said of I-300. “This is record-setting.”
Of course, the record-setting nature of I-300 has also made it one of the most contested questions on the May 2019 ballot. Last month, Westword looked at some of the funders of the opposition campaign, called Together Denver, which had by then raised $150,000. That figure has now reached nearly $600,000, with donations coming in large part from developers, business groups like the Downtown Denver Partnership and real estate interests. Even some homeless-service providers are concerned that the Right to Survive Initiative, as written to ensure tha people may eat, sleep, rest and share food in public, is overly broad and could open a Pandora’s box of litigation. Meanwhile, the Right to Survive campaign has raised $53,000.
But between music sets by Esmé Patterson, Laura Goldhamer and Wheelchair Sports Camp (whose MC, Kalyn Heffernan, is also running for mayor) at Tuesday's event, representatives of the Right to Survive campaign countered the opposition's arguments.
“Some people ask: Why not just overturn the camping ban?" Howard said during her speech. “That’s absolutely the most egregious of all the laws on the books right now that criminalize our survival, but that is absolutely not the only law on the books in Denver that criminalizes survival in public space."
As another example, she cited a law against sitting or lying in downtown.
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“There are more laws that are part of this,” she continued. “That’s why this initiative isn’t just about one law. It’s about protecting our rights for the future.”
But Tuesday's event was not designed to get into the nitty-gritty of the initiative. Folksy performances from Patterson and Goldhamer, followed by the socially conscious rapping of Wheelchair Sports Camp, focused instead on building awareness and community.
Indeed, "community” was a common refrain during the event, and video testimonials from individuals experiencing homelessness were displayed on a large screen to give voice to people living on the streets who support the initiative. Appeals were made to attendees to knock on doors and spread the word to friends and strangers alike, championing grassroots organizing and "people power" over the vast (and growing) fiscal reserves of the I-300 opposition.
Two months out from election day, it could not be more clear: Those for and against I-300 are running very different campaigns.