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Sharf: What the Denver mayoral candidates say about Initiative 300

On May 7, Denver will both vote for mayor and Initiative 300, the so-called “Right To Survive” initiative, which would repeal the city’s ban on urban camping. If passed, the law would permit anyone to set up camp on any public property in Denver, including parks and the space between your sidewalk and the street.

File photo – Todd Shepherd

Camping-friendly cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle have been suffering under the consequences of such a policy – increased disease, lawlessness, fears for public safety, and pollution. One camp in Minneapolis has a non-profit providing its own private “security,” so secure that it has made city government aid workers fearful of entering the place to offer help to the homeless there.

On Monday, March 25, the Lincoln Club of Colorado and the Denver Republicans hosted a mayoral candidates’ forum featuring the four leading applicants for the job – current Mayor Michael Hancock, Lisa Calderón, Jamie Giellis, and Penfield Tate. Of course, they were asked about Initiative 300, and all four agreed that it’s not the solution to the city’s homeless problem. But it was the nuances and differences in their answers that provide some insight into their candidacies.

Regis University professor Lisa Calderón, whose campaign bio is armored with a Social Justice Warrior’s identity politics, volunteered that we should not stigmatize poor people, and that what was needed was not a new approach, but competent administration of the city’s Road Home initiative. It should be pointed out that nobody attempted to stigmatize the poor, and that poverty by itself is only a partial contributor to the problem of homelessness.

Jamie Giellis, a consultant specializing in urban development and revitalization matters stated that, “Initiative 300 is the outcome of not addressing the issue,” and noted her personal experience with tiny homes, and temporary intervention to provide dignity and access to mental health services. Giellis also promoted the concept of Housing First, rapid access to permanent housing, which has already been embraced by the Denver city government. Giellis also looked to other cities, mentioning that “no city has solved this problem,” suggesting that easy fixes aren’t on the menu.

Mayor Hancock, running for his third term as mayor, agreed with that last statement, asking people to “look at other cities where they’ve allowed this to happen.” Hancock has presided over the ongoing implementation of previous mayor John Hickenlooper’s Denver’s Road Home initiative, now in the 15th year of its 10-year plan to end homelessness. He pointed out that the city already spends $50 million a year on the problem. “There is nothing compassionate about encouraging people to sleep outside.”

Finally, attorney and former state legislator Penfield Tate had what was clearly the most controversial take on homelessness. He criticized the mayor for the police approach to clearing out homeless camps and confiscating possessions. Those raids resulted in a class-action lawsuit on behalf of the city’s homeless, recently settled for no damages, but implementation of new policing policies and procedures. In addition to echoing calls for other measures to provide services, Tate proposed creating safe encampments, in coordination with the surrounding neighborhoods, arguing that “homeless encampments develop their own social networks.” Tate left undefined the nature of said coordination.

While all four candidates argued against 300 and for enhanced access to social services, the values they emphasized and the way in which they framed those proposal varied widely, leaving the listener with a clear sense of where their policies would be focused. Giellis and Hancock came across as more pragmatic; Calderón and Tate as more ideological, although Tate would probably dispute that characterization.

Voters should remember that on May 7, they’ll not only be voting for or against Initiative 300, but also for a mayor who will have to deal with the city’s growing homeless problem regardless of the outcome of that referendum.

Joshua Sharf is a Denver resident.

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