Denver police will no longer confiscate blankets and tents from homeless people during cold weather months as part of a change to the city’s camping ban.
Mayor Michael Hancock announced the decision Saturday as frigid overnight temperatures continued to raise concerns about the well-being of the city’s homeless population, estimated at more than 3,700.
“As a city, we have a responsibility and moral obligation to protect the lives of our residents,” Hancock said in a statement. “Urban camping — especially during cold, wet weather — is dangerous and we don’t want to see any lives lost on the streets when there are safe, warm places available for people to sleep at night.”
Denver police begin sweeps of homeless camps near the downtown Denver Recuse Mission on Nov. 15, 2016.
The shift came after civil rights organizations and attorneys demanded Friday that the city stop seizing the property of homeless people and threatened a federal lawsuit.
Even with the change, the city intends to continue enforcing the camping ban, a violation of which carries a potential penalty of a $999 fine. But police will not confiscate camping equipment through the end of April, according to the mayor’s announcement.
Denver Homeless Out Loud, an organization fighting the city’s camping ban, called the mayor’s decision “a big win.”
“This means that people surviving on the streets this winter will have just that much more hope to live through this winter,” the organization wrote in a statement posted on its website.
Days earlier, more than a dozen homeless people and advocates implored Denver city council members to stop the efforts to clear encampments in the city. This year, police are taking a more aggressive approach and issuing warnings at higher rates than in the past.
Police officers issued nine citations for violations of the unauthorized camping ordinance to seven people in the past two weeks, according to the mayor’s office. Of those cited, police only confiscated camping equipment from three people who camped outside the City and County Building as part of a Nov. 28 protest against the city’s ordinance.
The property was seized as evidence, but Denver officials say they will return the belongings.
“Every step we take is intended to connect people with safe and warm places and critical supportive services. We never intended to take the belongings that people need to keep warm,” Hancock said in the statement.
David Lane, a civil rights attorney, said he called the Denver city attorney’s office Friday to demand a policy change, adding to recent complaints from the American Civil Liberties Union.
“I told them if they didn’t stand down … we would be in federal court first thing Monday morning,” said Lane, who is organizing a new association called the Lawyers Civil Rights Coalition.
Amber Miller, a spokeswoman for the mayor, said the policy shift was not prompted by any particular event.
Denver Homeless Out Loud vowed to “fight on” to end enforcement of the camping ban and push for more housing, which it declared “a human right.”
“We should all know Mayor Hancock did not just decide this of his own good will,” the organization wrote. “This directive was made due to the legal and public pressure showing this is just plain wrong.”