If there's one thing that supporters and opponents of the Right to Survive ballot initiative agree on, it’s that the question being posed to voters in the May municipal election is unprecedented; Denver has never pondered such a sweeping set of protections for people to rest, eat and sleep in public spaces.
But while the backers of the initiative tout it as a progressive cause — one that could overturn Denver’s camping ban and give people, especially those experiencing homelessness, more license to live and move freely in public spaces — opponents see danger and costly lawsuits ahead should Denver wade into such uncharted waters.
The fight against the Right to Survive initiative, known as the Together Denver campaign, has a major stockpile of cash, built by some of the biggest names in development and real estate — and even an executive of a major homeless-service provider in Denver.
Campaign finance records show that Together Denver has spent only a fraction of the nearly $150,000 it's raised, mostly on consultants and a website that outlines many of the campaign’s concerns, including how the Right to Survive could detrimentally impact the city’s ability to regulate curfews, parks, sidewalks and other public areas.
Meanwhile, the Right to Survive initiative has raised $42,464, according to a February 8 campaign finance report.
Together Denver communications director Alvina Vasquez says the consequences of the Right to Survive ordinance are too far-reaching, and it doesn't provide tangible solutions.
“First, I’ll say that we don't disagree that homelessness is a problem in Denver as [the city] continues to grow and the economy is working for some and not for others,” Vasquez says. “We know that there is a problem. But there are policies that can help [the homeless] through funding and wrap-around services and housing that this policy does not address."
Together Denver policy director Cody Belzley adds that the opposition campaign is concerned about the broad implications of the Right to Survive initiative, which could open the door to litigation. (Belzley and Vasquez are seasoned campaign consultants who were hired in January by CRL Associates, a powerful lobbying firm in Denver that is overseeing the Together Denver campaign.)
"This is much broader than just addressing the camping ban,” Belzley says. “The initiative has wide implications for how public spaces in Denver are used. The measure is silent on a definition of shelter. So it's really unclear what types of structures could be erected, what types of building material could be used, and what the safety of those structures are for their occupants and community around it.”
Belzley adds that the initiative needs to define "harassment." "I think there's a real concern that outreach workers, social workers, police officers, even private citizens might approach a person experiencing homelessness and offer services or support, and if that person was to feel like they were being 'harassed,' it opens the door to a lot of litigation and could have a chilling effect on the ability to do outreach services and connect people with resources and help."
She says that a number of organizations, including homeless-service providers, started gathering and voicing concerns about the Right to Survive initiative in the months after it made the ballot. She declines to identify the organizations, but says Together Denver could release a list of endorsers by the end of February.
“I don't think we're in a position to name specific names of organizations because we don't have their permission to do so,” she says. “But we're in the process of building a tent-pole coalition that we're hoping to roll out at the end of the month.”
But campaign finance reports show the biggest donations to the Together Denver initiative are $25,000 checks from major players in the state's real estate and development industries, including one from the Colorado Association of Realtors, one from the Apartment Association of Metro Denver, and two from the Associated General Contractors of Colorado.
A contribution of $100 came from a vice president of the Denver Rescue Mission, which runs one of the biggest local shelters, as well as daytime services for individuals experiencing homelessness.
Brad Meuli, the Rescue Mission’s president and CEO, says that the donation does not reflect the organization as a whole. “Any donation that’s made by any of my employees is their personal business. I did not know anyone had donated,” he adds.
But Meuli adds that while the Denver Rescue Mission does not typically weigh in on politics and has not formally staked a position on the Right to Survive initiative, it may choose to do so before May.
“We do have some grave concerns about this initiative,” Meuli says. “We believe it prevents the City of Denver from enforcing laws that benefit public health and safety, and the biggest concern I have about this is that one of my Denver Rescue Mission employees could be subject to a civil-rights violation by simply going outside and talking to people on the sidewalk.”
Asked for her thoughts on Together Denver, Terese Howard of Denver Homeless Out Loud, which is spearheading the Right to Survive campaign, says that she takes issue with many of the opposition's claims, including the idea that the initiative would affect Denver's curfew laws, since she says the Right to Survive only applies to areas accessible to the public, and spaces like parks are not accessible after curfews.
“And the reason that the initiative doesn’t give a definition for harassment is because there’s already a definition on the books at the local level that’s been in place many years," Howard says. "There’s no need to give further definition when there’s an existing law in place.”
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As for the wide discrepancy in contributions between the two campaigns, Howard says she's motivated by the fact that Right to Survive has seen support by many smaller donors versus fewer larger contributors.
“If you compare the income for the opposition with our income for the Right to Survive campaign, our income is primarily through small-dollar donations from community members," she points out. “Look at the number of individuals who have donated to our campaign versus their campaign.”
Belzley says that, looking forward, the Together Denver campaign is focusing on sending spokespeople to neighborhood and business organizations to shore up opposition to the Right to Survive initiative.
"While we appreciate the proponents' work to bring attention to this issue and spark this dialogue, we just have very strong concerns about the proposed solution," she says. "I think instead we should be focusing on comprehensive support to ensure that Denver is a safe, welcoming and inclusive community for everyone."