Urban camping ban heats up packed city council committee meeting

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"Everyone take a deep breath." So began today's first public meeting about the proposed urban camping ban, organized by City Council's Land Use, Transportation & Infrastructure Committee in front of a group so large it breached fire code. While organizers stressed its purpose as an informational meeting -- many more are scheduled throughout April -- one piece of information continued to gather attention: There are nowhere near enough beds to shelter those the ban would oust.

Even if the city doubled its current shelter capacity, it would still not reach the necessary number, says Bennie Milliner, new executive director of Denver's Road Home. Milliner is one in a handful of speakers who addressed the topic before the City Council. Although he stressed that his organization is neither an advocate nor opponent to the measure, the remainder of those called before the committee voiced opinions on either side of the ban. So heated had the discussion of the ban become as it approached this stage that Councilman Albus Brooks, who heads the initiative, guided the gathering through a moment of relaxation before it even began.

"Let's work together and figure this out. This is a conversation," Brooks encouraged. Directly across from him, a large swatch of orange buttons bearing the message "Homes Not Handcuffs" bloomed across the shirts of several attendees.

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Kelsey Whipple
Today's packed committee meeting.
On his part, Brooks addressed his motivation for speerheading the efforts to pass the ban, which would make it illegal for anyone to camp on public or private property without authorization. The legal definition of camping is key: In the ban's initial draft, it is described as habitation, along with some fort of shelter, that can include eating, sleeping and setting up personal property.

Last summer, on a walk with his wife, Brooks counted 168 people he identified as homeless along the 16th Street Mall, and he called the city's homeless statistics "increasingly alarming," calling it "a dangerous situation."

During the two-hour discussion, Brooks pointed to the buttons in front of him and urged the gathering to "understand the facts.... Millions of dollars have been invested into our public areas, and as city council members, we are stewards of the public good."

In Colorado, similar bans are enforced in Colorado Springs (since 2010), Aspen (since 1974) and Boulder (since 2001). Denver's approval of the ban would add the city to a list that features Seattle, Los Angeles, Phoenix and 41 other cities, according to the Colorado Coalition For the Homeless. Its supporters cite both legal and practical effects as justification, mentioning public safety, property preservation, quality of life and the economic viability of commercial areas as concerns. Among the factors for the council to consider are the city's current ordinances, including laws against encumbrances, trespassing, curfew violations and obstruction of sidewalks and passageways.

The proposed ordinance comes seven years after Denver's similarly debated sit-lie ordinance, which applies only to downtown during the daytime. Although assistant city attorney David Broadwell says the two measures are entirely separate, he acknowledged the possibility of extending the urban camping proposal's predecessor in both time and geography as a possible alternative. "If you want to have the other conversation, we can certainly do that," Broadwell said.

While some cities with similar bans against urban camping take the availability of alternative resources into consideration regarding enforcement, Denver's current draft does not. At the meeting, Colorado Coalition For the Homeless President John Parvensky urged the council to revise the document by adding the option for homeless individuals who cannot find space in city shelters or other traditional resources to avoid legal reinforcement. When asked about the possibility, Broadwell called it unessential.

Click through for more discussion of the urban camping ban.


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