“Right to Rest” movie is a tribute to people experiencing homelessness, and a call to political action

A new documentary kicks off campaign season for the Right to Survive Initiative, which Denver voters will consider in May.
7 min. read
A still from Right to Rest. (Courtesy Sarah Megyesy)

"Right to Rest," a new Denver-focused documentary, is a tribute to the people experiencing homelessness and their supporters who together built a community of tiny homes as an alternative to shelters and a step toward permanent housing.

The documentary, previewed Monday in a full house in a Sie FilmCenter auditorium, also dissects Denver's camping ban and failed attempts to get state legislators to overturn that and other local laws some argue make homelessness a crime.  The combination of personal stories and political drama by filmmakers Sarah Megyesy and Guillermo Roques is likely to grab attention in the months leading up to Denver's May municipal elections, when voters will consider a Right to Survive Initiative that would overturn the camping ban.

Megyesy  and Roques worked with housing advocates Colorado Village Collaborative and Denver Homeless Out Loud. The latter's Terese Howard said before the screening that the two-hour movie was "inextricably tied" to the Denver City Council's vote in 2012 to ban people from sheltering themselves, even with a blanket, in public. Right to Survive, championed by Howard's group, would establish a "right to rest" protected from the elements in public. Right to Survive also would allow sharing food in public places where food is not prohibited and sheltering in legally parked motor vehicles. And it would ensure personal property could not be confiscated from people experiencing homelessness.

Denver Homeless Out Loud has scheduled a "March for Homes, Rights, and Dignity" on Saturday.

Cole Chandler of Colorado Village Collaborative said he hoped for more screenings of "Right to Rest" as the elections approach.

"We want to see real solutions talked about," Chandler said.

He and Howard feature prominently in the documentary, a blend of original interviews and archival TV news and other footage. A recurring visual theme is birds-eye shots in which the tiny homes and tinier people seem fragile, but as the narrative evolves transforms into a metaphor for ambition and hope.

"This kind of work is the role of people of faith," Chandler, a pastor, says in the film, in which he sports a man bun and a T-shirt with the slogan "Be a good person."

An intense Howard describes dwindling federal housing funds and derides the idea that people choose homelessness.

The documentary's music is by Laura Goldhamer, who opened Monday's event with a live performance of her "Live to See That Day: The Right to Rest Song." She passed out lyric sheets and the audience of about 150 joined in, to a melody reminiscent of Civil Rights era ballads, to calls for "the right to rest these weary bones ... for all who yearn to have a home."

Monday's screening was a fundraiser for Chandler's Colorado Village Collaborative. The group raised money, lobbied city officials and supported residents to realize Beloved Community Village, a collection of 11 tiny homes near the 38th and Blake light-rail station. A resident of one of the 96-square-foot homes is shown as the documentary opens watering flowers and tomato plants. Others speak of the community giving them a second chance in life and a sense of stability.

Beloved Community Village's current site is slated for a housing development. Colorado Village Collaborative recently learned that a site it had secured for relocation had been deemed unsafe by the city because of flood concerns.  Months before that, the city's Landmark Preservation Commission derailed plans to build a second Colorado Village Collaborative tiny home community in the parking lot of the St. Andrew's Episcopal Church campus.

Howard said she hoped that "Right to Rest" audiences would take away an understanding of "the vital need for more land, money and zoning" for tiny homes.

The documentary traces the beginnings of Denver's tiny home movement to reaction to the camping ban. Homeless Out Loud was founded months after the City Council's 2012 vote and the next year began building homes that offered people experiencing homelessness privacy if not much space or any plumbing. The intended tenants could help build the structures and help run the resulting communities. Advocates say tiny homes offer independence and dignity that shelters do not, and that they are not meant as substitutes for permanent housing.

Video of a 2015 raid on an unauthorized tiny home site on city land is included in the documentary. Then we see attitudes shift because of advocacy by Homeless Out Loud, Chandler and others. Beloved Community Village had city support and a site made available by the Urban Land Conservancy when it opened in 2017.

But attempts to overturn the camping ban repeatedly failed. Officials questioned whether the state proposal would mean people experiencing homelessness would be able to to take over walkways and parks, interfering with business and others' enjoyment of public spaces. State legislators also questioned whether the issue shouldn't be addressed at the local level.

Toward the end of the documentary, viewers see text reminding them of the upcoming municipal elections. Mayoral and city council seats also will be decided in May, and housing and homelessness is already part of the debate.

City Councilman Albus Brooks, who is up for re-election, was a main proponent of the camping ban. The audience booed during the documentary when Brooks appeared on screen in footage of the tense council meeting at which the camping ban was approved.

Brooks told Denverite recently that the ban came when Denver was experiencing a "public health issue and crisis" because of people experiencing homelessness congregating in areas like Ballpark and Civic Center Park and that forbidding camping helped the city move people toward shelters.

"The Right to Survive bill as it's written, it basically undoes the camping ban and it also undoes many other ordinances," Brooks said, referring to regulations such as those governing parks and the public's ability to move about the city.

He acknowledged the camping ban was divisive, but said it had not had the negative impact some had predicted and had "really pushed the city to create more housing."

Councilwoman Mary Beth Susman, who also voted for the camping ban and is running for re-election, said the burden on the city was to ensure citizens are sheltered.

"I just don't think it's a very healthy thing to allow people to camp anywhere," she said, adding that large homeless encampments she's seen in bigger cities like Los Angeles were "sad and frightening."

Former Councilwoman Jeanne Faatz, who was a member in 2012 and voted for the camping ban, said it still serves a purpose.

"I am not interested in the repeal," she said.

Right to Survive proponent Howard said no single piece of legislation can address all the aspects of homelessness. Right to Survive, she said, "is an answer to human dignity and basic rights and survival on the streets."

Howard argued that if Right to Survive passes the city will still have laws and regulations allowing it to protect public safety and health.

"This will not result in a taking over of sidewalks," Howard said.

She added that provisions some might see as unnecessary, such as spelling out that food can be shared and cars used as shelter, were meant to keep the city from tightening rules in the future.

But she acknowledged it could result in homelessness becoming more visible, as people without permanent housing would no longer have to hide from police. That, she said, could add urgency to efforts to provide permanent housing.

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