A controversial ordinance to ban "unauthorized" camping in the city of Denver--a measure that specifically targets homeless people sleeping on the streets and one that critics say simply criminalizes homelessness--was approved by the Denver City Council by a 9-4 vote Monday night.
In two weeks, once the ban goes into effect the city's homeless can continue to sleep on public property, however it will be illegal for them 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.
The city council meeting was packed and got very emotional with some homeless advocates nearly being forced to leave, 9News reports.
Councilwoman Susan Shepherd, who voted against the ban and urged people to vote out or run against the city council members who voted for the ban, said to the ordinance's protesters in attendance:
My heart is heavy tonight. My heart is broken. I want to thank all of you for being here tonight to witness the grave injustice and tragedy that we are about to commit tonight.
Proponents of the ban say that it is intended to protect the city's homeless who they say are at risk sleeping in city parks and sidewalks as well as protect the health and safety of the non-homeless population of Denver, 7News reports.
However opponents of the the bill say that it 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 are not nearly enough.
Linda Barringer of the Family Tree Homelessness program told Fox31 that she thinks the ban could also create unintended consequences for Denver suburbs -- i.e. homeless people that want to now avoid contact with police may move out of downtown Denver and into suburban areas where they will be "more hidden," she said.
But Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, who has experienced periods of homelessness in his youth and supports the bill, 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."
Hancock elaborated in an April 2 letter about the ban:
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.
Police Chief Robert White has promised that the police will be more relaxed than the ordinance allows. If the 'camper' hasn't broken any other law and shelter space were filled up or unavailable, "we aren't going to make an arrest," White said to The Denver Post
But if there is no intent to enforce or a passive approach to enforcement, then why pass the ordinance at all? That's the question homeless advocates asked during earlier meetings about the ban, The Denver Post reported.
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.
Last month, the ban caught the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado which wrote a strongly-worded letter to Denver City Council members arguing that the ordinance does in fact criminalize homelessness.
Denise Maes, public policy director of the ACLU of Colorado makes this statement in the 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.
The bill's sponsor, councilman Albus Brooks, said that no one would be arrested or cited if they want services when none are available, according to The Denver Post. At the meeting, Brooks told the crowd of vocal protesters, "It has been really frustrating for this to turn into class war and a fight when we should be coming together. We disagree. That's okay. But we should be coming together around the people who are about to sleep outside and have no other choice."