Denver Police Sgt. Brian Conover speaks with Dorian Phillips on Nov. 14, 2018, during a police sweep of a homeless encampment in Five Points. (Photo by Alex Burness for The Colorado Independent)
After hearings this week, a Denver County Court judge will decide whether the city’s camping ban is unconstitutional. But what the evidence presented has already made clear is that the camping ban is immoral.
Over the past three weeks, the hearings on the camping ban’s constitutionality have elicited objectively heartbreaking testimony, including stories from our homeless neighbors who are struggling to survive yet are constantly beaten down by a law that criminalizes their very existence, explanations from experts about the extreme negative effects that the camping ban has on the health and safety of Denver’s homeless population, and conclusive data that the ban targets the homeless.
Members of Denver’s homeless community took the stand to tell our city officials that homelessness in Denver is not a choice. Denver, per income, has the most expensive housing market in America. In Denver, the median rent of a one-bedroom apartment is $1,540 per month while a minimum wage worker makes, before taxes, $1,776 per month. As a result, in 2018, half of Denver’s renters paid more than 30% — and nearly a quarter paid more than 50% — of their income for housing. One medical bill, car repair or other unexpected expense could send most Denverites into homelessness. And, the evidence shows that even those with jobs aren’t immune from experiencing homelessness. Sixty percent of Denver’s homeless population have a job. It is simply a fact of life in 2019 Denver that working 40 hours a week does not guarantee that one will be able to afford a place to sleep at night.
There was also abundant evidence presented that Denver lacks enough shelter and affordable housing for its homeless population, including families, vulnerable youth, and those with service animals. Not only are Denver’s shelters insufficient, they are also dehumanizing and unsafe. Homeless individual after individual took the stand and told their stories of degradation and inhumanity inflicted upon them by Denver’s shelter system. One described the easiest shelter in Denver to access as a house of horrors and testified that she left after being assaulted. These lived experiences track with research, which shows that shelters diminish an individual’s personhood and autonomy.
Experts presented evidence of the disastrous effects the camping ban has on our homeless neighbors’ health, safety, and welfare. For example, those who have had the camping ban enforced against them are twice as likely to experience frostbite. Enforcement of the ban doubles homeless women’s likelihood of being assaulted, and triples the rate of homeless individuals experiencing visible hallucinations. So, when we hear Denver officials tell us that the camping ban promotes health and safety, we must ask, “Exactly whose health and safety?”
The testimony and evidence of the last few weeks has made inescapably clear that the camping ban was born out of nothing but animus for the homeless, and it was passed as an effort to push our homeless neighbors — the visible evidence of the injustice of our current economic system — out of sight. Enforcement of the camping ban illustrates this purpose. Since 2014, every ticket, save one, for violation of the camping ban has been given to a homeless individual. Outside of tickets, there have been over 13,000 orders to “move on” given by Denver police officers to homeless individuals. This hard data shows that the ban had nothing to do with health and safety, and certainly not the health and safety of our vulnerable neighbors, whom the law attacks. The testimony of Denver’s elected officials confirms the only logical conclusion to be drawn from this data: From the outset, the camping ban has been about demonizing the homeless, plain and simple.
Ultimately, in the richest country this world has ever seen, our collective efforts to criminalize (rather than help) the homeless are a disgrace. The proliferation of anti-homeless laws throughout the state of Colorado has been swift since the Great Recession. I am certain we will look back on our treatment of the country’s most vulnerable over the past decade as one of the black marks in our nation’s history. No matter what the court decides about the camping ban’s constitutionality, the demonization and criminalization of our homeless neighbors must stop. We MUST do better.