In 2012 the city council adopted a law making it illegal to camp in Denver.
“Camp," the law specifies, “means to reside or dwell temporarily in a place, with shelter. The term ‘shelter’ includes, without limitation, any tent, tarpaulin, lean-to, sleeping bag, bedroll, blankets, or any form of cover or protection from the elements other than clothing. The term ‘reside or dwell’ includes, without limitation, conducting such activities as eating, sleeping, or the storage of personal possessions.”
Since its passage enforcement of the law has overwhelmingly targeted people living in homelessness. It has led to thousands of encounters that police say are aimed not at arrests, but at persuading people to comply and nudging them to seek help. I’ve spoken to people living in homelessness who say the camping ban adds to the stress of being on the streets and rarely leaves them feeling supported.
In May, Denver voters are being asked to overturn the camping ban by voting for an initiative called Right to Survive. Denver Homeless Out Loud, the advocacy group that gathered signatures to get the initiative on the ballot, says it’s a matter of protecting the rights of some of the city’s most vulnerable residents. Opponents say the measure will undermine the city’s ability to maintain health and safety, on which livelihoods and lives depend.
Back when the camping ban was adopted the debate was fearful and angry. Now that an initiative to topple it is on the table, we’re hearing fear that Initiative 300 goes further than it needs to, and could even constrain those who want to help people living in homelessness if their help is received as harassment. And we’re hearing angry questions about why anyone can argue for order and cleanliness over human need.
I’m not sure how many people in Denver are aware of the camping ban and of the bid to repeal it that will appear on ballots that soon will be landing in mail boxes. I wonder whether, unless you’re a journalist or a politician, it’s just too early to be paying attention.
So I was surprised when a member of the audience at a candidates’ forum I moderated last month asked city council hopefuls whether they supported Right to Survive. Maybe the questioner was a journalist or politician disguised as a person.
The incumbent opposes Right to Survive because she sees it as giving up on fighting homelessness. She responded to the question with a tutorial on Housing First and understanding how trauma can affect us. Housing First refers to the philosophy of getting a roof over a person’s head, and perhaps some mental health or job training on the side, with no prerequisites. Thinking about the impact of trauma can help us understand that crowded, warehouse-like shelters may be worse for some people than camping in the park, and that could help us design better shelters.
One of the incumbent’s challengers supports Right to Survive because of the impact she has seen the camping ban have on people experiencing homelessness, including the loss of all they own in clean-up sweeps. She spoke of the number of people living in homelessness who are also working, and can’t always get from a job that doesn’t pay enough to cover rent to a shelter before all the beds are taken.
Both incumbent and challenger were passionate. It was clear they feared few people understand that solving homelessness will take perseverance and money over the long term. They were angry about the conditions on the streets now.
The incumbent was talking the kind of talk I hear at city council meetings and in conversations with social workers who are trying to end homelessness. The challenger was both shattering stereotypes about homelessness and bringing the need for affordable housing into focus.
Where ever voters come down on Right to Survive, getting the facts and the ideas about solutions out of their silos and into a wider community conversation might be the most important thing that comes out of the campaign.