05/01/2012 09:30 am ET Updated May 01, 2012

Denver City Council Approves Preliminary Ban On Homeless 'Camping'

A proposal to ban "unauthorized" camping in the city of Denver--a measure that specifically targets homeless people sleeping on the streets--has gotten preliminary approval from Denver City Council. The controversial bill's critics argue that the ordinance criminalizes homelessness.

After nearly five hours of starkly divided testimony from approximately 100 people both for and against the measure, The Denver Post reports that the council voted 9-4 in support of the measure at 1:35 a.m. Tuesday morning.

According to The Denver Post, Councilman Paul Lopez, who voted against the measure said this, "I see a conflict between the powerful in this city and the powerless. This isn't an attack on folks who have businesses here in Colorado. They do a lot for the homeless. For me it is deeper than that. I didn't choose to be here to defend the most powerful. I am here to defend the people who don't have the power."

But other city council members were moved by the testimony of business owners who said that the danger to employees of downtown businesses, tourists and residents at night is too great and that something drastic needs to be done. According to 9News, Councilman Albus Brooks, the sponsor of the measure, said that the city has heard growing "concern from downtown residents, downtown businesses, our tourism department as well -- we're starting to see an uptick in people camping out in the public right-of-way."

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.

It also means that the estimated 200 new beds that the city is trying to add to Denver's homeless shelters is not nearly enough.

However, 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 during a hearing in April. "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."

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."

So, 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.

As part of their May Day "general strike" today and in protest against the proposed ban, Occupy Denver announced that they will be participating in a sleep-in on 16th Street Mall at the Denver Pavilions on 16th Street between Tremont and Welton beginning at 9:30 p.m. tonight.

Denver City Council will hold a final vote on May 14, and if passed, the ban will go into effect on May 29.

WATCH: Members of Occupy Denver read their open letter to Mayor Michael Hancock