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Urban camping ban heats up packed city council committee meeting

"Everyone take a deep breath." So began today's first public meeting about the proposed urban camping ban, organized by City Council's Land Use, Transportation & Infrastructure Committee in front of a group so large it breached fire code. While organizers stressed its purpose as an informational meeting -- many more are scheduled throughout April -- one piece of information continued to gather attention: There are nowhere near enough beds to shelter those the ban would oust.

Even if the city doubled its current shelter capacity, it would still not reach the necessary number, says Bennie Milliner, new executive director of Denver's Road Home. Milliner is one in a handful of speakers who addressed the topic before the City Council. Although he stressed that his organization is neither an advocate nor opponent to the measure, the remainder of those called before the committee voiced opinions on either side of the ban. So heated had the discussion of the ban become as it approached this stage that Councilman Albus Brooks, who heads the initiative, guided the gathering through a moment of relaxation before it even began.

"Let's work together and figure this out. This is a conversation," Brooks encouraged. Directly across from him, a large swatch of orange buttons bearing the message "Homes Not Handcuffs" bloomed across the shirts of several attendees.

On his part, Brooks addressed his motivation for speerheading the efforts to pass the ban, which would make it illegal for anyone to camp on public or private property without authorization. The legal definition of camping is key: In the ban's initial draft, it is described as habitation, along with some fort of shelter, that can include eating, sleeping and setting up personal property.

Last summer, on a walk with his wife, Brooks counted 168 people he identified as homeless along the 16th Street Mall, and he called the city's homeless statistics "increasingly alarming," calling it "a dangerous situation."

During the two-hour discussion, Brooks pointed to the buttons in front of him and urged the gathering to "understand the facts.... Millions of dollars have been invested into our public areas, and as city council members, we are stewards of the public good."

In Colorado, similar bans are enforced in Colorado Springs (since 2010), Aspen (since 1974) and Boulder (since 2001). Denver's approval of the ban would add the city to a list that features Seattle, Los Angeles, Phoenix and 41 other cities, according to the Colorado Coalition For the Homeless. Its supporters cite both legal and practical effects as justification, mentioning public safety, property preservation, quality of life and the economic viability of commercial areas as concerns. Among the factors for the council to consider are the city's current ordinances, including laws against encumbrances, trespassing, curfew violations and obstruction of sidewalks and passageways.

The proposed ordinance comes seven years after Denver's similarly debated sit-lie ordinance, which applies only to downtown during the daytime. Although assistant city attorney David Broadwell says the two measures are entirely separate, he acknowledged the possibility of extending the urban camping proposal's predecessor in both time and geography as a possible alternative. "If you want to have the other conversation, we can certainly do that," Broadwell said.

While some cities with similar bans against urban camping take the availability of alternative resources into consideration regarding enforcement, Denver's current draft does not. At the meeting, Colorado Coalition For the Homeless President John Parvensky urged the council to revise the document by adding the option for homeless individuals who cannot find space in city shelters or other traditional resources to avoid legal reinforcement. When asked about the possibility, Broadwell called it unessential.

Click through for more discussion of the urban camping ban. In the meantime, Broadwell argued that the draft's enforcement protocol, which includes medical assessment, a written warning and an oral warning, is generous in a way those in most places with bans are not.

"Other cities don't have these kind of provisions that we have in our ordinance," Broadwell says of the section's language. (It was taken verbatim from Denver's sit-lie ordinance, which was itself inspired by legislation in Seattle and Philadelphia.) "We don't even have these kinds of provisions in our ordinances."

In creating Denver's draft, Broadwell said he worked with Brooks to guarantee that it is a reaction to the behavior of those who break the law and not to their financial or social statuses. This means it is not intended to target Occupy Denver or the city's homeless population, though many if not most of those who find fault with its message are motivated by its implications for the city's homeless residents.

Reality remains a dominant concern. Although the ban is supported by Mayor Michael Hancock, Councilman Paul Lopez questioned the city's ability to finance the additional resources it lacks in order to create alternative shelter options for those who would be banned from the streets. "As of today, if every person who came in off the street required a shelter, we do not have that," Milliner says. "But we didn't have that when we enforced sit-lie. The question then becomes, 'Do we not do anything because we can't do everything?'"

Reactions to the proposed ordinance were mixed, as they have been for months. While the Colorado Coalition For the Homeless urges a move away from what Parvensky called actions to criminalize the homeless, representatives of the business community support its potential to boost the city's image and cut down costs to property owners. "It's a strain," says Tami Door, president of the Downtown Denver Partnership, about urban camping. "It's seriously impacting business and the perception of our community when there's mass camping in our city center."

While Occupy Denver spoke out against the ban, urging compassion instead of legislation, those who protect the movement's longtime home staunchly refuted that position. Lindy Eichenbaum Lent, executive director of the Civic Center Conservancy, argued that city parks and public property are not built for habitation. She cited recent headlines regarding scabies, drug distribution and assault charges inside of Civic Center Park as evidence.

"Park curfews alone do not prevent camping because sidewalks are not addressed," Eichenbaum Lent says, continuing to state that denying the ban would serve as an advertisement for residents to use Sloan's Lake, Cheeseman Park and other public property as "overflow shelters."

In the coming month, the topic will return to city council chambers on several occasions across committees. Next Saturday, organizers will reach out to the Inter-Neighborhood Cooperation, followed by a meeting with the Homeless Commission and attention from the council's Health, Safety, Education & Services Committee. Although the public was not permitted to address the council today, one thing is clear: Interested parties will need some time to do so.

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Councilwoman Susan Shepherd referred to the currently allotted public hearing slot, one hour of time on April 30, as "completely inadequate." Check back for further updates.

Read the current draft below: Denver Camping Ordinance Draft

More from our Politics archive: "Urban camping ban proposal mean-spirited, possibly unconstitutional, says ACLU."

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