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Urban camping: Occupy Denver protests precede council vote on ban

It's crunch time. As the Denver City Council prepares for a final vote tonight on the proposed urban camping ban, opponents and proponents spent the weekend discussing the issue in meetings and on the streets. At the Inter-Neighborhood Cooperation, regional representatives hosted a panel to debate the ordinance, which could go into effect on May 29 if approved, while Occupy Denver slept overnight in front of the Downtown Denver Partnership to protest the organization's support of the ban. And there are more demonstrations to come.

At the INC panel, held Saturday morning, speakers from Occupy Denver, city council, Denver's Road Home, the Denver Police Department and the Colorado Coalition For the Homeless, among others, answered questions presented by representatives of local neighborhoods. The greatest silver lining to come out of the morning might be that of additional group discussion in the future. "It will force us into collaboration," says Josh Davies, who is on the board of the Lower Downtown Neighborhood Association.

The panel's first question, which called on speakers to predict the results of the ban a year after it launches, took into account the current city council climate on the issue; at an eight-hour meeting two weeks ago, the council preliminarily voted in favor of the measure. "From a law enforcement perspective, the absolute, unequivocally last thing we want to do as a police department is arrest someone for a camping violation," DPD chief Robert White said. He stressed a case-by-case approach to enforcement. "As a very last resort, we have the option of citing or arresting," he said, but added that he hopes not to use it -- and certainly not without a supervisor present.

But opponents of the ban worry that department policies could change with time, creating a different standard of enforcement as years pass. While White promised that any individual without a city shelter available that night would not be ticketed or arrested, others questioned why that promise is not specifically included in the ordinance's language.

If people approach the police, either during an ordinance violation or otherwise, and request a shelter for the night, "We will find them a place to stay," promised Bennie Milliner, executive director of Denver's Road Home. But he stressed the importance of transitioning to permanent housing, the organization's primary goal, later saying, "This is not probably going to disappear as a result of this ordinance."

Although neither woman took part in the panel, council members Robin Kniech and Susan Shepherd, both of whom voted against the ban two weeks ago, attended the meeting. At its conclusion, a "beside herself" Shepherd addressed the gathering, close to tears, to summarize her position.

Page down to read about Shepherd's take and upcoming demonstrations. "I'll just be real clear: I'm very opposed to this ordinance," Shepherd said. Although she's heard the word "compassionate" broached repeatedly as an approach to the ban, she's having a hard time believing it. "I think this process has been incredibly, incredibly rushed and non-inclusive. I wish I had the strength to change some people's minds. I am so angry that I have worked my ass off over two elections to get here, and I am not going to make things more comfortable for people who already have a lot of money.

"I'm going to go down in flames on this issue in a big way on Monday," she said, before turning to her companions on the panel and telling them, "I love you guys, but you are not social workers."

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Occupy Denver members would agree. On Saturday night, the group staged a protest/slumber party directly in front of the 16th Street Mall home of the Downtown Denver Partnership. Earlier in the week, the group protested against Snooze, whose co-owner, Brianna Borin, spoke in support of the ban at an earlier council meeting. Last weekend, occupiers picketed the breakfast restaurant, which employed four homeless individuals in its kitchen at the time of the protest.

During an afternoon march across the 16th Street Mall, Denver police officers followed the group's progress and dispersed warnings against blocking the street and public property. Around 7 p.m., they arrested two protesters, Patrick Boyle and Nick Mengheir, in front of the Denver Pavilions when the two briefly lay down in protest.

Today, Occupy Denver continues its opposition with an afternoon sit-in at the City and County Building, where the council will vote on the ban. From noon to 5:30 p.m., protesters will gather with blankets and sleeping bags to discuss the topic and march against it. Two council members are expected to attend.

More from our Politics archive: "Photos: Occupy Denver protests Snooze, plans Downtown Denver Partnership sleep-in."

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