An activist group called Denver Homeless Out Loud managed to gather 9,000 petition signatures to get Initiative 300 on Denver’s ballot in May. If voters approve this, it would repeal a sensible ordinance passed in 2012 that outlawed overnight camping in public spaces. That measure was supported by Mayor Hancock and passed in a 9-4 vote by the otherwise liberal city council. It wasn’t so much a homeless-camping ban as it was a reaction to the excesses of the leftist Occupy Denver protestors ─ aping New York’s Occupy Wall Street camp-in ─ that turned our city’s sidewalks, parks and public places into obstructive, unsightly public nuisances.
In 2016, Denver authorities finally applied the 2012 ordinance to clear out a surge of makeshift camps of homeless people that had been illegally living on sidewalks and other public property. Unlike the Occupy protestors, these homeless folks weren’t politically motivated or purposefully disruptive, they were just dwelling but, nonetheless, doing so unlawfully.
Initiative 300’s wording is aggressively expansive. In essence, squatting in residential areas on sidewalks and alleys between homes would become legal in Denver. Also, in parks where curfews would be eliminated. Shanty towns could sprout up in Lincoln Park across from the state Capitol, Washington Park, City Park, Sloan’s Lake and Red Rocks. Spaces around sports facilities would also be fair game, like Coors Field, the Pepsi Center and Bronco’s Stadium (or whatever it’s called these days). Restrictions would be imposed on the enforcement of laws currently intended to protect public health and safety.
In 1982, 16th Street was closed to automobile traffic and the mall was created to compete with metro-area shopping centers, boost the downtown economy and attract businesses, restaurant goers and entertainment seekers. In 2012, Mayor Hancock acknowledged the problem of panhandlers harassing passersby and street people sleeping in doorways, and said when we lose downtown as a place people want to go, we lose the heart of the city. Initiative 300 would make the 16th Street Mall even less appealing to residents and tourists.
The homeless advocates behind Initiative 300 and the ACLU don’t give a hoot about all these negatives. This is typical of activists with a narrow, dogmatic focus and little practical concern for the bigger picture and its damage to the greater good. In the name of humanitarianism, bastions of political progressivism like Los Angeles, San Francisco and Portland have created havens for the homeless that are becoming mushrooming, foul, unsanitary enclaves.
The term “homeless” is a generalized catchall that confuses the problem. One broad definition encompasses anyone “without an independent, permanent address.” That could include your 25-year-old daughter, out of college and between jobs who temporarily moves back in with mom and dad. Only a small segment of the homeless are without a place to live and that includes almost all children in families. They may be living with a friend or relative (this is called “doubling up”) or in temporary publicly-funded apartments, hotels or motels. Others may be in emergency shelters, medical or psychiatric hospitals, detox facilities, jails, or domestic violence shelters.
The homeless come in different categories. And no one remedy fits all. Many are substance abusers. Some are military veterans with PTSD. There are those who are out of work, down on their luck and destitute. Some are free-spirited, willful societal drop outs. Others, especially in the summer, are healthy young vagabonds going through a stage in life or teenage runaways. And a great number are mentally ill. In the 1970s, the ACLU won court battles to force the release of patients incarcerated in mental institutions, even if they were unable to care for themselves. For many this turned out to be abandonment not liberation and it accounts for much of the intractable homeless problem today.
Initiative 300 targets that small fraction of homeless who would more accurately be described as street people. Our compassionate society isn’t inclined to let these people “die in the streets.” Local and federal programs make financial aid and medical care available to them. Denver government is increasing spending on affordable housing. Homeless shelters in Denver do their part but some of the homeless are wary of these facilities because of their rules and restrictions. Others covet their independence and choose to live outdoors. This is a thorny dilemma with civil rights laws clashing with economic and societal realities.
Initiative 300 is a terrible idea that would be unreasonably disruptive of the rest of Denver’s community. But what’s to be done instead? About 20 years ago I wrote a column proposing the creation of Community Assistance Centers (CACs), funded publicly and with private contributions. A CAC would be clean and functional but austere. It wouldn’t be a jail; residents would be free to come and go. But it would have rules and discipline. Room and board would be provided along with clothing. The center would have an infirmary, and alcohol and drug rehab programs. Residents would be required to work at the CAC performing maintenance, food service, security and other duties. They’d be assisted in finding outside employment with instruction and placement services, and from their wages they’d pay a nominal resident fee during their stay. This is a similar model to Step Denver, a 30-year old highly successful charitably-funded program for men with substance abuse afflictions.
That kind of program would be a bridge for those who truly want to improve their lives and be productive members of society. It’s not a panacea and clearly wouldn’t be attractive or practical for all of the homeless. And outside of involuntary institutionalization how do we help that fraction of homeless outliers who refuse treatment, rehabilitation or honest labor and are unwilling or unable to live within normal societal constraints? That’s a confounding question. Some problems have no solutions, just mitigations and tradeoffs at best.
Maybe others have some practical suggestions. But Initiative 300 certainly isn’t that.
Longtime KOA radio talk host and columnist for the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News Mike Rosen now writes for CompleteColorado.com.