Denver Turns on its Citizens

It all sounds so nice and innocent until you actually begin to think of the implications.  The City of Denver is going down the path of making it illegal to be homeless downtown.  The Denver Post is supporting the plan while the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless is opposing the ordinance.  They had battling editorials/commentaries this past week.  These are awful laws that do nothing for the city, and have failed nearly everywhere.   They sound innocent enough. People should not be camping in public, and if they are it should be regulated by government.   But these activities have no comparison to "camping" and should be referred to as "surviving."  So these are "no surviving ordinances" actually.  Calling having to sleep outside "camping" would be similar to calling dodging bullets in the siege of Sarajevo "participation in a biathlon."

The city will be sued, and the Occupy movement will train homeless people to claim they are protesting by sleeping outside.  The police will resent having to give out tickets to poor people, because our society can't figure out a way to house its citizens.  The jails will fill up with those who cannot pay the fine for being homeless.  This will make it even harder for them to get into housing with a criminal background thus lengthing their stay on the streets.  And the bottom line is that punishing people for being homeless does not move them into housing.  It basically just moves people to other parts of town, and then those neighbors just have to deal with the issues.

The Council will then have to explain why this policy did not work to constituents in the three years, and will have to pass more severe laws.  These type of laws did not work in Atlanta, Austin, or any of the Florida cities that have tried it.  It is a waste of time legislation that just makes it seem as though elected officials are doing something about homelessness.  We tried this method in an unofficial manner in the 1990s in Clevelnad when the Mayor ordered the police to go out and threaten arrest of everyone sleeping outside.  Things had gotten out of control because the shelters were so deplorable to the point that hundreds were sleeping downtown.  We litigated this City of Cleveland policy for almost a decade until a settlement in 2000.  The City had to find a new approach to downtown homeless that did not involve law enforcement.  There were many upgrades including the creation of a decent shelter at 2100 Lakeside, coordinated outreach and in fact the Downtown Alliance cleaning crews that fundamentally changed downtown.  There are now a handful of homeless people downtown as compared to hundreds a dozen years ago. 

We recommend Denver and any city wishing to rid themselves of homeless people sleeping downtown look at Cleveland for a solution.  This is not cheap, but putting hundreds of people in jail and having the police become the babysitters of homeless people is not cheap either.  We have 20 years of information to show that making a law to criminalize being homeless does not work.  Denver leaders should look for a social service response to this community problem rather than a law enforcement response.

Brian Davis

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