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Urban camping ban: Denver City Council delays vote -- for a week

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Today, after the Commission on Homelessness called for an additional four weeks to consider an urban camping ordinance, Denver City Council moved its final consideration date to May 14, one week later than previously scheduled. The decision came with a final vote of four to three. If approved, the bill would be signed by Mayor Michael Hancock the next day and go into effect on May 29 following two weeks of outreach.

If finalized, the ban would make it illegal for anyone in Denver to camp on public or private property. Denver would follow other Colorado municipalities, including Boulder, Aspen and Colorado Springs, all of which have approved similar legislation. Denver's city council is scheduled to host its first open public hearing on April 30. Speakers will be limited to three minutes each.

Since it was introduced in city council a few weeks ago, the ordinance has sparked considerable debate across camps, but so far, no currently homeless individual has talked about the topic in front of the council. "We have yet to hear from a single person who's living on the streets today," councilwoman Susan Shepherd said. "We are elected to speak for all the people in Denver, and that's whether you have property or not and whether you have a fixed address or not."

Today, in front of the council's Land Use, Transportation and Infrastructure committee, the debate focused predominantly on the push for extra time to debate, with one side suggesting an extension would increase the amount of knowledge and feedback from homeless care providers and the other claiming it would only delay action needlessly.

Although the ordinance passed out of the committee this afternoon, amendments could still be added. Among the options suggested by council members was a plan to require an annual report and a rule nixing enforcement when shelter or outreach are unavailable. According to David Broadwell, assistant city attorney, the second option could protect the city against possible future legal battles

"When an ordinance has been challenged on an as-it-lies basis, occasionally those kinds of claims have gotten traction in federal court," Broadwell said. "You have to be careful in the application of the law to make sure you're not criminalizing people who are extremely helpless."

In the past five years, the 500 homeless people who have been through the legal system most frequently in Denver have been a part of almost 17,811 arrests, said Regina Huerter, executive director of the Crime Prevention Control Commission. For the top 100, the total of arrests was 632 in 2011 alone. Throughout a month of discussion on the ban, the majority focused on topics of public health and safety, which prompted Councilman Paul Lopez to suggest that the ordinance should have instead been directed through the Health, Safety, Education and Services committee he chairs.

"This train has left the station, obviously, but it's on the wrong tracks," Lopez said. "It's a political move, and I'm disappointed. In this committee, it might pass, but in (Health, Safety, Education and Services), it would be thrown out the window."

Page down to continue reading about the latest developments in the urban camping ban proposal. As the ban moves forward, officials at Denver's Road Home hope to guarantee additional shelter extensions by classifying the situation as an emergency -- a designation that provides special opportunities. For example, this move would include beds at the Crossroads, which is currently scheduled to close on May 1. But while part of the council argued for extra time to guarantee bedding and other resources before voting on the bill, councilman Albus Brooks, the ban's head supporter, was not among them.

Councilwoman Debbie Ortega told the meeting she was "pissed off" at the lack of transparency surrounding the subject, particularly in regard to the number of beds available for those the ban would displace. For example, today's meeting was the first time she and other council members were made aware of an extension that means 100 extra beds will continue to be available at the Denver Rescue Mission through June.

Along with council members Shepherd and Robin Kniech, both of whom support the Commission For Homelessness's consensus calling for four more weeks, Ortega spoke with Mayor Michael Hancock's office about concerns over the funding behind the ban. Shepherd says the group "did not get anything more than some vague promises."

As scheduled, the aforementioned May 14 meeting comes only two days after the Inter-Neighborhood Council will hold its own discussion of the ban. Councilwoman Judy Montero expressed concern that individual neighborhoods have not had enough opportunity to speak to the topic.

"I didn't even have grey hair when I started this," she joked before getting serious. "We're applying some of the same thinking and expecting different results. We already know what's going to happen because we've seen it again and again."

In the meantime, the homeless commission's shelter subcommittee is also meeting this afternoon -- with many of the same officials. The full committee is not scheduled for another meeting until after the city council's final vote on the ordinance.

More from our Politics archive: "Urban camping ban: Albus Brooks calls it an emergency."

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