A group of people experiencing homelessness and their advocates gathered across the street from the Denver City and County Building on Monday, October 1, where they did something that they say is technically illegal in Denver: They covered themselves with blankets.
That's a strict interpretation of the city's Unauthorized Camping ordinance, better known as the urban camping ban, a controversial measure that's been in place since 2012 and prevents people from using “protective elements” such as tarps, sleeping bags and tents in public spaces.
Monday's gathering was more than an act of political theater, though. The group was holding a rally before turning in over 9,000 signatures to the Denver Elections Division to get an initiative on Denver's May 2019 ballot that would overturn the urban camping ban (as well as add some other protections for people in public spaces).
According to the Right to Survive Initiative, voters could be deciding next year whether to ensure the rights of all people to:
1. Shelter oneself from the elements in a non-obstructive manner in outdoor public spaces.
2. Eat, share, accept, or give free food in any public space where food is not prohibited.
3. Occupy one’s own legally parked motor vehicle or occupy a legally parked motor vehicle belonging to another, with the owner’s permission.
4. Expect safety and privacy in relation to personal belongings in public spaces.
“We are here to deliver 9,000 signatures,” declared Jesse Parris into a bullhorn aimed toward the mayor's office. “This is for our right to survive on the streets.”
Another woman, Monica Finley, tearfully recalled a time she had been raped by a group of strangers after a police officer had forced her to move from a camp she had felt safe in.
The Hancock administration and the camping ban's original sponsor, Councilman Albus Brooks, have defended the ordinance by pointing out that there is always space in the city's shelter system and that sleeping outside, especially during the winter, can be a health hazard. Another common defense of the ordinance is that citations are rarely handed out by police officers, so the fiscal and criminal justice impact on Denver's homeless population is not significant.
At issue, however, is what to do with people who refuse to use city shelters for various reasons, including concerns about safety, health and what to do with belongings.
And Westword's reporting on the ordinance's enforcement has shown that the Denver Police Department constantly uses the camping ban as a tool of “moving along” people even if it doesn't give out tickets. During 2017, the camping-ban protocol, which the DPD refers to as a “street check,” was employed over 3,000 times. The department has said that it first refers campers to shelters, but for those who refuse to take up the offer, a street check just results in the camper finding a new location.
Public opinion about the camping ban has been divided from the get-go. Last year, three individuals cited for camping violations, including Denver Homeless Out Loud's Terese Howard, challenged the urban camping ban in county court. All three were found guilty of violating the city's ordinance, but only after a surprising jury-selection process in which multiple jurors asked to be excused because, they told the judge, they found the city's law to be unethical.
But even more recent court cases are informing such laws. On September 5, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with six individuals who sued the City of Boise, Idaho, back in 2009 alleging that the city's ban on camping in public spaces was unconstitutional. Last month, the appeals court sided with the plaintiffs on Eighth Amendment grounds (protections against cruel and unusual punishment). The City of Boise is now appealing the 9th Circuit decision, raising the possibility that the case could land in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Denver finds itself in a tangential federal lawsuit related to sweeps of homeless encampments, though that case, slated to begin next spring, is narrowly tailored so that it cannot touch upon the camping-ban ordinance, only over whether the city has violated search and seizure and equal-protection rights when city crews broke up a number of homeless encampments between late 2015 and late 2016.
Howard took the bullhorn last during Monday morning's demonstration. In front of a few news cameras, she characterized the camping ban as “pretending that visible poverty is something that you can push out of sight.”
She and others had been part of efforts to pass "Right to Rest" bills at the state legislature for three years in a row; those were struck down by Statehouse committees each time, often along party lines.
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Howard is banking on things being different when going directly to Denver voters. At 10 a.m. Monday, she led a procession of initiative supporters on a short march to the Denver Elections Division, where she and nine others turned in boxes containing all the signatures.
Howard says the language for the Right to Survive Initiative was approved by city legal experts back in April. Since then, she says, supporters of the initiative, including with Denver Homeless Out Loud, have collected signatures from “all around town,” including at community events, farmers' markets and school functions. Nine thousand is almost twice the number of signatures required to get the initiative on the ballot, and Howard fully expects the initiative to land before voters in May.
“The only way it won't be is if the city tries something funny,” she says.
The Denver Elections Division has 25 days to count the signatures and determine whether Denver voters will decide on the Right to Survive Initiative next year.