This post was updated on March 16 with the breakdown of the final vote.
Hundreds of people lined a Colorado statehouse chamber on Wednesday as advocates tried for a fourth time, unsuccessfully, to establish a bill of rights for people experiencing homelessness.
Well more than 60 people turned up to testify about the idea. Among the supporters were some prominent figures from Denver’s civic circles: a co-founder of Bayaud Enterprises, the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, mayoral candidate Kayvan Khalatbari, Councilman Paul López, and Erik Soliván, the housing expert who previously advised Mayor Michael Hancock.
But the bill drew overall opposition from cities along the Front Range, including Denver’s administration, and was voted down 10-3 by the Local Government Committee of the state House of Representatives. Four Democrats voted to indefinitely delay the bill, along with all six Republicans in the room.
With the loss, it’s unlikely that the bill will move ahead this year. It was opposed by Democratic representatives Dan Pabon, Matt Gray, Paul Rosenthal and Don Valdez; and by Republicans Larry Liston, Hugh McKean, Kim Ransom, Judy Reyher, Dan Thurlow and James Wilson.
Its only supporting votes were James Coleman, Jonathan Singer and Tony Exum, Sr., all Democrats.
The bill actually fared worse than a previous version in 2017, when it failed 8-5 before a committee.
How it works:
The “Right to Rest” proposal would have protected people who live in public spaces. It’s a response to laws in Denver and other cities, where laws allow police to sweep through encampments on streets and along the South Platte River.
“At least 231 people died homeless in Denver in 2017, and we didn’t pass the bill. This is 2018. What we are seeing is a major increase in the amount of deaths since we introduced this bill,” said Rep. Joseph Salazar, who co-sponsored the bill with Rep. Jovan Melton, both Democrats.
The bill would have included a right to rest and eat in public spaces and allow people to occupy “legally parked” vehicles. It also would have given them a “reasonable expectation” that their property will remain private.
Often, people living outside return to find that their belongings have been trashed or put in storage. A man living on the South Platte told me in December that his camp had been hauled away three times. (Generally, city officials say that they’re acting to preserve public health.)
“What do we do when individuals have no other place to go? Do we cite them? … Do we harass them and tell them to move along?” Melton said.
The bill would have forced governments to pay up to $1,000 for each violation. Advocates have introduced the bill annually since 2015, while similar legislation has been considered in California and Oregon, according to Paul Boden of the Western Regional Advocacy Project.
The supporters this time included two eighth-graders. “There’s no reason to criminalize staying alive,” said Mia Silver.
Rep. Paul Rosenthal responded, asking what Silver would tell classmates who were uncomfortable with reports of drug use and feces in public parks.
The girl responded: “I would tell them that it’s OK to be scared, but they are people like us, but in my research that I’ve done, I’ve found no evidence that homeless people commit more violent crimes.”‘
Arguments and questions:
The impact on local powers
The bill attracted questions from state and local officials — would it allow people to simply sleep in the way of businesses and pedestrians? Would it allow people to camp on unsafe areas of mountainous roads?
But Salazar said that the law allows people to rest only in a “non-obstructive” way. It wouldn’t take away cities’ abilities to declare areas as off limits, he said.
Rosenthal, the south Denver Democrat, asked whether the conversation shouldn’t be happening before the Denver City Council. He also asked whether there was evidence of people dying after having their gear taken.
Melton responded that he hadn’t seen “an appetite for Denver to turn over its ordinance,” citing conversations with Mayor Michael Hancock and Council President Albus Brooks.
In Denver, five people were cited or arrested for camping-ban violations in 2017, while police gave verbal warnings thousands of times, Chris Walker reported. (The ban was passed in 2012.)
Don Mares, executive director of Denver’s human services department, said that the bill would erode local control, and that it was “inhumane” to have people living outside. He said Denver spends $50 million yearly on homelessness services.
Peter Wysocki, planning director for Colorado Springs, said the bill could undermine local powers and fuel “increased resentment toward the homeless.” He said the city wanted to maintain “a vibrant business climate and public safety,” and is working in other ways to reduce homelessness.
A member of the Fort Collins Police Department told the committee that the bill could hamper the force’s ability to deal with people who are traveling through with backpacks, tents and vehicles, whom he distinguished from people experiencing homelessness.
“We see this as just presenting big challenges … allowing this just creates a sense of laissez-faire, of ‘Let’s just be here,'” said Sgt. Dennis Lobato of the Greeley Police Department.
Another Greeley officer said that she could lose the power to make people move and stop behaviors such as defecation.
Denver Councilman López, though, said it was worth giving up some control. “First and foremost, it’s cruel,” he said of the camping ban.
Easier or harder?
Rep. James Wilson, a Republican, said that the bill could make it “easier to be miserable.”
“In smaller communities outside the metro area, we take care of our homeless folks, and we look out for them. We try to do things, and that’s church based,” he said.
Salazar countered with another urban-rural argument.
“When Denver enacted this ordinance, they did it on purpose, and it started pushing people out into our areas,” he said. “This is a Denver, Boulder, Colorado Springs problem that’s being created.”
Soliván, who previously headed Denver’s HOPE office, spoke in support of the bill. “The Right to Rest bill is not perfect, but it’s certainly worthy of debate on the House floor,” he said.
David Henninger is a cofounder of Bayaud Enterprises, the group that Denver pays to run its lauded Denver Day Works employment program. He said that the city’s camping ban was an obstacle to Denver’s own employment efforts.
“One of the barriers that comes up continually is the camping ban,” he said, noting that it forces people to travel farther and farther to work.
Khalatbari, the candidate, said that he had been swept along four times in a six-hour period that he spent sleeping outside. “It’s insanity,” he said.
Nantiya Ruan, a professor at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law, said that the bill could improve relations between police and people without homes.
“In part, it’s a symbol,” she said.
Correction: I said Western Regional Advocacy Plan. I meant Western Regional Advocacy Project. I also corrected a date associated with Denver’s urban camping ban and added some context about Bayaud’s role in Denver Day Works.