The most important vote that Denver residents cast this year may not be for mayor. A better candidate is a ballot measure most voters probably haven’t even heard of yet: Initiative 300, which would overturn the city’s ordinance that outlaws camping in parks or on sidewalks, or setting up residence in a car.
Its stated target is the ordinance that city council approved in 2012 in the wake of Occupy Denver protests, those copycat eruptions whose many acts of vandalism included defacing the stone balustrades at Civic Center. Protesters not only set up camp at various locations downtown, they turned the sidewalk along Broadway into Tarp City for the entire winter.
The new law did not go down well with activists, who have charged ever since that it “criminalizes” homelessness. Initiative 300 is their attempt to enshrine squatters’ rights across the city. They would create a “right to rest,” including lying down and sleeping, and “to shelter oneself” in “outdoor public spaces,” which include parks, sidewalks, museum grounds, the Highline Canal and much more. It would usher in the sort of squalid, quasi-permanent encampments on public property that have become a problem for cities such as Los Angeles, Portland and Seattle.
No time limit for “rest” is mentioned in the measure, nor any limiting definition of “shelter.” Tents presumably would pass muster. But what about sturdier, more permanent structures?
Proponents are insouciantly forthright about their goals. In a FAQ sheet regarding 300 that appears on the Denver Right to Survive website, proponents describe what they believe should be the proper attitude toward people who might set up residence in “cars and trucks” outside your home: “What makes someone sleeping in their vehicle by your home — because they have nowhere else TO sleep – more threatening to you and the neighborhood than someone sleeping in their home next door?” the fact sheet asks. “Get to know the people. You will likely find that there is nothing to be worried about, and even that they make the neighborhood safer by protecting your house from burglary and deterring other crime.”
A similar approach is advised if an encampment springs up in your local park, where curfews will be unenforceable. Get to “know, understand and appreciate” your new neighbors. They’re not bad folks, despite the “myth of homeless people as criminals” perpetrated by “public officials and the media.”
Well, of course homeless people are, for the most part, decent citizens. Their personal virtues hardly settle the question of whether they should be allowed to camp on public property.
Seven years ago Mayor Hancock declared, “The moment we lose downtown as a place people want to go for entertainment, recreation or a place to live, we lose the heart of Denver.” That judgment still carries weight, but it isn’t just the heart of Denver that is at risk today.
It would be one thing if the city treated the homeless like medieval lepers, banishing them from public sight and denying them options of shelter, food or assistance. But the opposite is closer to the truth. The city spends literally tens of millions of dollars every year subsidizing housing and services for the homeless, from motel vouchers and transitional housing for the chronic homeless to outreach workers, specially trained police and much more. And that doesn’t count its dedicated fund for affordable housing or the impressive resources deployed by private shelters and charities.
Indeed, for years Denver’s approach to homelessness has included a commitment to locate shelter for those who need and want it. Unfortunately, some people need but don’t want it, or at least don’t want what they are offered.
Meanwhile, police have issued only a handful of citations for illegal camping in most years. But there is no denying the city has invoked the law to disperse encampments and to prod people into moving from various locations where they would have preferred to stay.
You may argue the city should be spending still more to assist the homeless and that we should pass a special tax on their behalf, as Los Angeles and San Francisco have done. Fine. Then gather signatures and put that on the ballot. Initiative 300 does nothing in that regard.
Or you may point to the high cost of housing and advocate abolishing restrictive zoning laws, giving landowners and developers greater leeway to find cheaper housing solutions. OK, go for it. (Although don’t kid yourself: Even if we could magically reduce rents tomorrow by half, we would still have a major homeless problem.)
“Nothing about the Right to Survive Initiative attempts to address the complex social problems” that lead to homelessness, points out Cody Belzley of Together Denver, a business-backed group that opposes the initiative. “Nothing about Right to Survive provides additional resources, or additional support or innovative strategies to try to actually help folks who are experiencing homelessness.”
A few years ago a District Court judge upheld Boulder’s anti-camping ordinance against a legal challenge with a warning that Denver residents would do well to ponder. “This court is persuaded by the City of Boulder’s argument that turning public spaces in Boulder into campgrounds would present problems concerning sanitation, public health, safety and environmental damage,” Judge Ingrid Bakke stated.
Of course it would. And that’s what a similar policy in Denver would do, too.
Vincent Carroll is the former editorial page editor of both the Rocky Mountain News and The Denver Post, where a version of this column first appeared. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.