On Thursday, the Denver Commission On Homelessness called for a delay on any further action on the city's proposed "unauthorized camping ban" for at least month so that the issue could be discussed more thoroughly, The Denver Post first reported. Critics of the bill say, if passed, it would criminalize homelessness in Denver.
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, who supports the bill and is also a member of the commission, rejected the assertion that the bill criminalizes homelessness. "I cannot find anything more absurd than that statement," Hancock said about the criticism of the bill. "We know there is a shortage of resources. I believe what this ordinance will do is help us focus even more sharply on helping develop those resources."
But the bill has the city's homeless scared since Denver shelter's are already overwhelmed. Bennie Milliner, executive director of Denver's Road Home, a homeless advocacy group aimed at ending homelessness in Denver, told Westword that even if the city doubled its current shelter capacity, it would still not reach the necessary number of people who are in need. A survey conducted in 2011 numbered the region's homeless at north of 11,300 people, an estimated 28 percent of whom sleep outside.
If passed, the ordinance would make it illegal for anyone to sleep in sleeping bags, tents, or other constructed outdoor shelters anywhere where camping is unauthorized, like: alleys, sidewalks, public city parks or outdoor malls. Namely, where some of the city's homeless bed down for the night.
Though Denver Police Chief Robert White has yet to announce formal police policy relating to the ordinance, he said the department would take a "passive" approach to the measure at a City Council meeting early in the week, saying that "the last thing officers want to do is arrest someone for being homeless."
But, based on this statement, the fact that police don't want to arrest someone doesn't mean they won't. And for a police force frequently charged with use of excessive force, noncommittal a priori statements of pacifism should be taken with a grain of salt.
If there is no intent to enforce it, then is there a need for the ordinance at all? That's the question that homeless advocates asked in response to Chief White's statement, according to The Denver Post.
Denver already has anti-panhandling laws, one of which--a "sit and lie" ordinance--prohibits sitting or lying on sidewalks downtown between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. That law is rarely enforced beyond verbal and written warnings from officers.
The controversial proposal got the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado this week which wrote a strongly-worded letter to Denver City Council members arguing that the ordinance does in fact criminalize homelessness. A statement from the ACLU letter:
The ACLU of Colorado finds the Ordinance mean spirited. Simply put, the Ordinance criminalizes homelessness in open view. Arguments to the contrary are simply false and statements to effect that the Ordinance does “not endorse arrests” ignore the plain language of the Ordinance. The Ordinance clearly provides for enforcement through citations and arrest and even permits the arrest of someone on private property camping “without the express written consent of the owner.” This provision places the burden of showing the owner’s consent on the individual accused of unlawful sleeping on private property.
Read the full ACLU letter here.
The proposal also drew the ire of Occupy Denver protesters, who have become advocates for the city's homeless population, . The protesters wrote an open letter to Denver Mayor Michael Hancock earlier in April condemning the proposed ban and requesting that the bill be discarded. Watch Occupy Denver protesters read their letter to Mayor Hancock below.
Mayor Hancock, who has experienced periods of homelessness in his youth, says that the enforcement of this ordinance will be balanced and that it provides the city "with additional tools to help those most vulnerable among us" and will be "paired with the comprehensive services necessary for short and long-term support," according to The Denver Post.
Hancock elaborated in an April 2 letter about the ban on so-called "urban camping":
Having been homeless as a child, I will always take a thoughtful and compassionate approach to this issue. While the proposed ordinance would prohibit camping on public and private property without specific permission, I am also insisting on safeguards to protect people from unfair or unjust treatment.
The bill was supposed to be introduced to Denver City Council next week and was scheduled to be voted on May 7.
WATCH: Occupy Denver reads open letter to Mayor Hancock