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Urban camping ban proposal mean-spirited, possibly unconstitutional, says ACLU

As witnessed by a Westword item from October, Mayor Michael Hancock and Denver's business and outreach communities have spent months discussing and debating a push to ban overnight camping on public property. Now that the issue is reportedly scheduled to be addressed in a City Council committee meeting on Tuesday, the topic is sparking criticism from other quarters.

Joining the ring is the Colorado ACLU, which calls the ban "unwise, mean-spirited" and potentially unconstitutional.

City attorneys disagree. Already, neighbors in Boulder and Colorado Springs have banned camping on public property, with Boulder's own ordinance coming under fire and passing in court last year. In Denver, the proposed ordinance, fronted by City Councilman Albus Brooks, would make it illegal to live or sleep on public or private property anywhere inside the city limits — pushing the city's homeless away from areas including the 16th Street Mall and the Platte River. This means no bedding and no personal belongings spread out, which could already come under the city's ban against encumbrances on sidewalks. At present, it is legal to sleep overnight on any city property excluding parks.

As the City Council meeting approaches, city officials are tackling plans for how to enforce the ban if it takes effect. Called the "CAM system," the preliminary implementation outline would apply its acronym through contact, assessment and mobilization. Advocates for the ban, including Hancock, stress that the goal is to help the homeless, not imprison them.

In October, when the issue began to gather steam, Westword talked to Amber Miller, spokesman for Mayor Hancock, about the potential ordinance's intentions — namely, that it's not geared at Occupy Denver. Although Hancock has come out in favor of the ban, along with representatives of the business sphere who see it as a positive, Miller stressed the need for a "comprehensive plan."

In the intervening months, however, the ban has raised attention across the board, despite only being scheduled for discussion next week. (Votes aren't expected until the end of April, at the earliest.) While some view it as a healthy step for area businesses that interact with the homeless, the ban has been called a quick fix by those who don't think the city has the resources to apply it effectively. Statistically, this means beds, which Alexxa Gagner, director of public relations for the Denver Rescue Mission, says the city doesn't have enough of to provide a more permanent shelter option for the city's homeless population.

"I think our main priority is the safety of the people we serve every day, and sleeping outside isn't safe," Gagner says. "But we're limited in the number of beds we can provide, and while the city has provided us overflow beds, we still don't have enough. It's just not a permanent solution."

At the same time, Gagner notes that sleeping on public property is also not a permanent solution. But she worries about the ban's potential to criminalize homelessness inside the city. "We're concerned about the ban making it a crime to have nowhere to go without giving them anywhere to go," she says. The Colorado Coalition For the Homeless has also targeted the ban by distributing summaries of its negative effects, including the potential to "criminalize survival activities."

The Colorado chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has come down hard on the same concern. Although director Mark Silverstein has not released the organization's full plan of action, both firm opposition and future investigation factor in. "The proposed 'no camping' ordinance is unnecessary, unwise, mean-spirited, and may violate the constitutional rights of persons who have no money and have no choice but to sleep outside," Silverstein says.

In 2011, according to data from the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative, Denver's homeless population was comprised of 62 percent families, up from 53 percent in 2009. Almost 25 percent of the city's homeless community is newly so. In reviewing the proposed ban, Gagner urges city officials and residents to reconsider the perception of the chronic homeless individual.

If the city does not have enough beds for those who would have to leave the streets, private organizations are a likely next step, she says, pointing to success stories associated with Denver's Road Home. The Rescue Mission's partner organization has formed relationships with local churches to house members of the homeless community, particularly women.

"I would hope that the goal of the ordinance would be shelter for people, whether that's churches stepping up or more community relationships or whatever that looks like," Gagner says. "It's not a long-term plan to just move them off the streets. We have to remember that they're a part of our community."

This blog by Westword writer Kelsey Whipple was published Wed., Mar. 28 2012 at 11:56 AM

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