When Denver’s urban camping ban was passed, politicians said enforcing it would give police an opportunity to connect those experiencing homelessness to services.
With weeks to go before Denver voters will decide whether the urban camping ban adopted in 2012 should be toppled, Denverite asked police for data on officers approaching people because of the camping ban and the number of times those encounters resulted in a person being taken to a shelter or otherwise provided aid, as the law stipulates. The department was able to say its officers have had more than 12,000 encounters between mid 2012 and this January. Spokesman Sonny Jackson said the department could not put a number on the times that led to aid being offered, but he said such offers were a daily occurrence.
On the streets, though, the contacts can leave people like Tre Harris feeling the stress of uncertainty. The aspiring musician was sitting on a Civic Center Park bench near a row of yellow school buses lined up along Broadway. He could have been a high school student on a field trip. Instead, he said he’s been on the streets since his mother kicked him out four years ago because she didn’t like the crowd he’d started to hang out with.
You never know when an encounter with a cop might escalate, Harris said.
“It’s always a worry. Worrying about their taking you to jail over nothing,” Harris said. “If I’m not under arrest, why do I have to stop and talk to you?”
The police department was able to tally people sent to detox — 70 in all since 2012.
“Detox isn’t service. Detox is detention for misbehavior,” said Benjamin Dunning, a co-founder of Denver Homeless Out Loud.
Dunning’s advocacy group gathered petition signatures to get Initiated Ordinance 300, a measure it calls Right to Survive, on Denver’s May ballot. In addition to envisioning the toppling of the camping ban, 300 targets the city’s ordinance on sitting and lying in public. 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.
Dunning’s colleague Terese Howard said a survey of 512 people experiencing homelessness that her organization conducted in 2012 showed only 4 percent of those contacted by police under the camping ban had been connected to services. She said more recent data compiled by Denver Homeless Out Loud showed little has changed since that first year of the ban. She sees a city strategy “to use the force of a policeman with a badge and a gun to get their desired effect: which is (forcing) people out of sight, out of mind.”
The urban camping ban outlawed on public property such activities as eating, sleeping or storing belongings while sheltering with tents, tarps, even blankets. According to the data compiled by Denver police, between June of 2012 and this January officers on more than 12,000 occasions have approached individuals and groups in parks and other public spaces to enforce the ban. It’s rare for even a written warning to be issued, let alone for an officer to make an arrest. The 2012 law stipulates that police should prioritize getting people to comply with the law simply by asking, and should try to get help for those who need it rather than citing them.
Jackson said the low number of warnings, citations and arrests was proof police were carrying out council’s intentions.
“We make a lot of contacts,” Jackson said. “But we’re not trying to put people in jail. We’re trying to connect them with services.”
Department of Human Services spokeswoman Julie Smith said her department also could not pin down how many times police officers acting under the camping ban have connected people to help, but said: “We work with our partners at DPD to ensure they are able to provide needed support outside and alongside enforcement of the camping ordinance.”
Police outreach, Jackson said, has included handing out flyers with information about aid and even on at least one occasion helping a man with travel expenses so he could return to family outside Denver. Jackson also pointed to a program started in 2016 in which mental health professionals go on calls with police officers. Jackson said two police homeless outreach teams and another community-oriented team work with mental health professionals. One of the homeless outreach teams is responsible for the whole city and the other focuses on police District 6, which includes areas where people experiencing homelessness often congregate — downtown, Curtis Park, Civic Center Park. The police data showed two-thirds of the contacts under the camping ban were in District 6.
According to the police statistics, most of the people approached under the camping ban are homeless. Contacts are made at all hours of the day. Only 3 percent of those contacted ended up arrested for violations unconnected with the camping ban or were found to have other warrants.
In addition to campaigning against the camping ban, Denver Homeless Out Loud, whose founders and members include people who have personal experience of homelessness, helped bring a class action lawsuit challenging the city’s practice of clearing people and their belongings from Denver streets. Earlier this year, the group and the city announced a settlement with provisions that include requiring the city to give written notice before clearing people’s belongings from public places.
On 300, CBS Denver reported Thursday that a poll of 500 likely voters commissioned by Together Denver, which opposes the measure, showed 56 percent said they were in favor when they were simply read the initiative’s ballot language. A third said they were opposed and the rest were undecided during the poll conducted Jan. 30-Feb. 4. The poll found that after hearing more about the effort to repeal the camping ban, voter support dropped to 44 percent.
According to their latest campaign spending reports, Together Denver has raised more than $580,000 from groups such as the Downtown Denver Partnership and individuals such as Pete Coors. Denver Homeless Out Loud has raised about $54,000, most in small amounts — some as little as $5 — from individuals.
In addition to spending power, Together Denver has political connections — its leadership includes Roger Sherman of the prominent public affairs firm CRL Associates — to push its message that Right to Survive isn’t a solution to homelessness. Denver Homeless Out Loud counters that people’s rights must be protected while they are awaiting housing.
Opponents say the measure is so vaguely and broadly written that it could undermine the city’s authority to maintain public safety and security and tie the hands of nonprofits that offer food and other aid to people experiencing homelessness. Indeed, 300 has not been embraced by organizations that have partnered with Denver Homeless Out Loud to secure housing and other services for people experiencing homelessness. Cathy Alderman, vice president of communications and public policy for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, has said she would instead like to see City Council or Mayor Michael Hancock withdraw the 2012 camping ban or amend it “in a way that it can’t be enforced when people have nowhere else to go.”
Alderman’s coalition and groups such as Catholic Charities of Denver and Denver Rescue Mission also have expressed concern that if voters approve Right to Survive, the focus could shift to “sheer physical survival in outdoor spaces that are not suitable for human habitation” instead of rallying to respond comprehensively to homelessness. The service providers have noted that thousands of dollars were being spent on the campaign to defeat Right to Survive while efforts to end homelessness were “under-resourced and underfunded.”
Harris said he doesn’t like crowded shelters. It’s not unusual for young people like him to feel uncomfortable in shelters with older people, and service providers have expressed concern about a lack of accommodations for younger people in the Denver area. After having tents and sleeping bags confiscated several times, Harris has moved from sleeping along Cherry Creek to sleeping in office tower bathrooms or entry ways when he can. He said no police officer has ever offered to take him to a shelter.
Sometimes it’s park rangers shooing her away. Sometimes it’s private security guards at grocery stores. Sometimes it’s police officers clearing sidewalks.
“You have to move around when you’re homeless,” said Catherine Seward McCoy, still for the moment on a sleeping bag on a patch of grass next door to the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library in Five Points. Seward McCoy said she had worked as a gardener in Park Hill until an injury led to first the loss of her job and then, a year and a half ago, the loss of her home.
Seward McCoy said the most she’s ever received from police was the phone number of a service agency. She described struggling with the wait lists and lottery systems at shelters for women in the Denver area, signs of a shortage of spaces.
The police statistics show about a quarter of the people contacted under the camping ban were women. A quarter were under 30 years old.
Tobias Romero is torn. He opened his own barber shop around the corner from Blair-Caldwell four months ago. He worries it will be hard to build his business if clients have to make their way to him along sidewalks strewn with tents. But he also has an uncle who was homeless for a time.
“Ultimately, these are human beings,” Romero said.
Updates previous with link to 2019 Denver Homeless Out Loud survey of people living in homelessness.