Jerry Burton talks with Alice Fria, 57, as she joins his camp March 19, 2019, in Denver.
Right now in Denver, people experiencing homelessness face a cruel trap: they can’t sleep on private property because that’s trespassing, and they can’t sleep on public property because of the Denver camping ban and other ordinances that criminalize homelessness. So where are they supposed to go?
The ACLU of Colorado supports Denver Initiative 300, on the ballot May 7, because it ends the Denver camping ban and breaks the cycle of criminalizing homelessness. The initiative was created by people directly impacted by homelessness, who understand the vicious cycle of our current system all too well.
Solutions to homelessness will require extensive investment in affordable housing, job opportunities, accessibility and a range of public services, but as long as the city, police and some of our businesses believe the evidence of homelessness can be hidden, or swept away by policing and criminalization, there will never be enough money or will to adequately address the real issues.
Yes, shelters are sometimes an option, but there are not nearly enough shelter beds for the homeless population in Denver, and there are many people for whom shelters are not an option, due to shelter restrictions, location relative to place of employment, pets, possessions, physical or mental health issues, lack of transportation, accessibility — the list goes on and on.
Extensive city resources are used to conduct sweeps by police to ticket or arrest people experiencing homelessness, or to wake people up in the middle of the night and tell them to “move along.”
But the question always remains — move along to where?
The well-financed “Vote No on 300” campaign is using false and misleading scare tactics to paint an image of homelessness as out of control and encroaching everywhere, but the homeless population that would exist after the ordinance is the same one that exists now. Initiative 300 would not increase homelessness and many restrictions on where people can sleep would still remain. It would not allow criminal behavior either, but, it would block the city from giving you a criminal record if you ever needed to sleep in your own legally parked car.
Initiative 300 does not restrict the provision of services; it is the sweeps that occur now that push people further away from service providers and into other neighborhoods. It is the current criminalization of homelessness that creates barriers for people who want to offer a helping hand.
Passing Initiative 300 is necessary to start a real conversation that the city has avoided for far too long. It makes a statement that Denver must get serious about creating real solutions for our homeless neighbors rather than using our criminal legal system to displace and dehumanize them. Opponents of the initiative say, “We can do better,” but that is a naive slogan in a city where the camping ban remains on the books, where police were caught on video taking away blankets, and where donations for services were used to conduct police sweeps instead.
Opponents of Initiative 300 call it “inhumane,” “risky,” and “unworthy of our city.” But sweeping people like debris from place to place is what’s inhumane. Criminalizing people for needing rest is risky. And saying that more should be done, but not doing anything, is unworthy of a city known for its compassion and innovation.
We can do better, and it starts with recognizing that human beings shouldn’t lose their human rights just because they’ve lost their home. Making people invisible is not the right initiative. Passing 300 is a worthy start.
Nathan Woodliff-Stanley is executive director of the ACLU of Colorado.
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