Colorado Coalition for the Homeless questions whether Right to Survive is the right way to overturn Denver’s camping ban

6 min. read
Colorado Coalition for the Homeless holds a vigil for the 233 (or more) people who died while experiencing homelessness on Denver streets this year. Dec. 22, 2018, (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless would like to see Denver's camping ban overturned, but questions whether the Right to Survive measure is the way to accomplish that.

"We're not opposing the measure," said Cathy Alderman, vice president of communications and public policy for the leading, statewide nonprofit that supports people experiencing homelessness with housing, healthcare and support services. "We just think at the end of the day it's not the solution we would advocate for."

She said she would instead like to see City Council or Mayor Michael Hancock withdraw the camping ban that City Council adopted in 2012, or amend it "in a way that it can't be enforced when people have nowhere else to go."

Denver voters will decide on Right to Survive in May. In addition to overturning the camping ban, Right to Survive targets the city's ordinance on sitting and lying in public. Proponents say it is a matter of protecting basic rights. The proposal also calls for people in public places to be able to eat and share food where food is not prohibited; to shelter in legally parked motor vehicles; and to be assured that their privacy and property will not be interfered with. It would be illegal "for an employee or agent of any government agency, corporation, business, or other entity to harass, terrorize, threaten, or intimidate" anyone exercising the rights spelled out in the proposed ordinance.

Alderman spoke after issuing a statement on behalf of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless expressing concern "that the 'solution' of the Right to Survive initiative will have unintended consequences and will not resolve the complex crisis we are experiencing in Denver."

The statement went on to say, "The current system has failed to provide safe and appropriate alternatives to living on the streets for everyone experiencing homelessness in Denver."

The coalition added that it  "does not believe the solution to this failure should be to 'institutionalize' encampments and street homelessness through a 'right to be left alone' on the streets."

"We should work to eliminate the need for a 'right to survive' and the unproductive response of criminalizing the actions necessary to survive outside by providing safe and accessible alternatives to living on the streets."

Later Wednesday, the coalition and eight other major service providers together released a similar statement. Catholic Charities of Denver, the coalition, The Delores Project, Denver Rescue Mission, The Gathering Place, St. Francis Center, The Salvation Army, Urban Peak and Volunteers of America expressed concern that thousands of dollars were being spent on the campaign to defeat Right to Survive while "we are under-resourced and underfunded." They also took issue with what they saw as the tone of the opposition message. And they expressed fear that if voters approve Right to Survive, "the focus will be sheer physical survival in outdoor spaces that are not suitable for human habitation" instead of rallying to respond comprehensively to homelessness.

A group called Together Denver, which has brought together business and political figures to oppose Right to Survive, has criticized the measure as failing to offer solutions to homelessness and has spoken of such possible unintended consequences as tying the hands of city officials charged with public health and safety.

Alderman, of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, said any issues with the measure could, if voters adopt it, be resolved by City Council, which can fine tune citizen-initiated legislation. When the coalition referred to unintended consequences, Alderman said, it was out of concern the debate over the initiative could grow heated, fueled by opponents of the measure deploying "scare tactics"and imagery that could be seen as demonizing people experiencing homelessness.

The statement she released included a call on the city "and the opponents of Initiative 300 [to] commit to halting the divisive, traumatizing, and stigmatizing activities and campaigns that demonize and disrespect the inherent dignity of all people in our community. The harassment and criminalization of acts of survival continues to be disruptive and unproductive with long-term damaging results."

Together Denver policy director Cody Belzley said her organization had no involvement in making city policy and was committed only to making voters aware of what it saw as the risks of Right to Survive.

"We're trying to be very sensitive and thoughtful in the way we talk about those risks," she said. "We're working very hard to try to run a compassionate, thoughtful and honest campaign."

Belzley said Together Denver took no position on the camping ban. She added the organization believed Right to Survive was the wrong solution to homelessness and would have the effect of institutionalizing homelessness.

Terese Howard of Denver Homeless Out Loud, the advocacy group that got Right to Survive on the May ballot, said she had hoped the coalition would stand with her group behind the measure.

"It's very disappointing that they are unwilling to stand up for people's rights," she said.

Alderman said the coalition considers Denver Homeless Out Loud a partner in combatting homelessness. Alderman said a city divided over the Right to Survive debate might be distracted from the work of addressing homelessness. Wednesday's statement, she said, was in part an attempt to refocus the discussion.

"We wanted to see if there was a way to bring folks together," she said.

The coalition's statement described Denver's current approach to homelessness as "under-resourced and inadequate." The coalition called on the city and its business community to find at least $50 million a year to address the problem.

The coalition also proposed a shorter term plan, calling for more emergency beds, including beds for people with pets or partners who are often turned away from traditional shelters and for young people and people with drug problems or mental health issues who need special support. The coalition asked the city to fund at least 600 vouchers to help people move from the streets into vacant apartments; commit resources and come up with a plan within three months to convert overnight shelters into 24-hour facilities designed to move people to long-term housing; and move quickly to speed the development of permanent supportive housing. Lastly, the coalition recommended an increase of $1.5 million for outreach services.

Howard, of Denver Homeless Out Loud, said the coalition's wish list won't be realized easily or quickly.

"That's not going to happen tomorrow," she said. "And people are going to be on the streets."

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