Denver, CO

Anti-homeless ballot initiative could create chaos

David Heitz
Photo/Denver Homeless Out Loud

Denver’s homeless encampments are unpleasant for everyone. Squalid living conditions, no restroom facilities, rampant drug abuse and mental illness. Nobody should have to live that way without an awful lot of help.

But the loudest noise is coming from people who don’t want to look at this black eye on humanity, and who want the public right-of-way clean and tidy. It’s difficult to blame anyone who has that point of view. But the solution to homelessness is housing, not chasing homeless encampments in circles.

You can’t just make people disappear. But it’s what a ballot initiative brought forth by Denver Republican Party Chairman Garrett Flicker calls for.

Flicker’s initiative asks Denver to enforce its camping ban, first and foremost. The ballot question asks: “Shall the voters of the City and County of Denver adopt an ordinance requiring the City and County of Denver to enforce unauthorized camping, providing a process for private enforcement if the city fails to enforce unauthorized camping; allowing the city to establish up to four authorized camping locations on public property where the city must provide running water, restrooms facilities and lighting and funding such camping locations with city revenues to support the city’s homeless population.”

Denver already is enforcing the camping ban. Denver Mayor Michael Hancock supports the sweeps and has stepped them up, but it has cost him some political capital.

A federal judge ruled the city of Los Angeles must house its entire homeless population by October, but another ruling put that mandate on hold. The judge had made the order supporting the argument that the city must first house the homeless it aims to sweep.

Los Angeles adopted a camping ban anyway like Denver’s last week. Those rallying against the encampments aren’t waiting around for court rulings. It doesn’t seem far-fetched that the issue of homeless encampments could end up at the Supreme Court. It’s an issue in all of America’s big cities.

I lived homelessness and climbed out of it

In some respects, Flicker’s proposal seems silly. There are thousands of homeless people on Denver’s streets and not enough shelter spaces for them all. Creating four safe outdoor spaces is not going to accommodate all the people camping on the streets. It will make a welcome, albeit tiny, dent, but realistically the city may need dozens of safe outdoor spaces to accommodate everyone.

I have spent most of my life working successfully in journalism. But a few years ago, I had a mental breakdown and ended up homeless on the streets of Denver. I lived the hell that is homelessness, and I experienced the horrible treatment from tourists, police, and others who would shudder at the site of my tattered clothes and suitcase on wheels.

As for encampments, I’ll say this about them. When I no longer felt safe (or was no longer allowed in the shelters), I began to stay in the parking lot of Salvation Army Crossroads homeless shelter. I did not stay in the shelter itself, as I had ban banned from there for getting into an argument.

I did not stay in a tent in the lot, so I never claimed I "camped" there. I used to sleep on an abandoned couch. As long as I didn’t cover up with a blanket, technically it was not “camping” per the Denver ordinance.

At any rate, there were plenty of tents and other lean-tos around my dumped off couch in the lot. What I can say about the time I stayed at the encampment was that I felt safe and lucky to be there. Lucky, that is, until someone picked a fight with me one night and I knew it was time to go.

Less depression while staying at encampment
Photo/Denver Homeless Out Loud

The time spent staying in that parking lot were times I felt less depressed and somewhat stable. At least I had a schedule of going to Auraria Campus for lunch, then the library after that so I could blog. I kept a blog about homelessness. I had a place to go at the end of the day where there was some sense of community.

You get to know the other people in the encampment, and you look out for each other. Borrow a cup of sugar from a neighbor, All of that.

I also was lucky because at the time there was a portable toilet in the courtyard outside the shelter. So, there was a place to go to the toilet. That outhouse since has been removed.

Courts, Colorado Coalition for the Homeless save day

Eventually I ended up in the state mental hospital in Pueblo. I got the help I needed and obtained housing through Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. Today I work and pay rent. I live in a hotel converted into housing for the formerly homeless.

Life is surprisingly good.

I would like to see everyone get off the street like I did, but I don’t think Flicker’s ballot initiative would accomplish that. The fact that it asks for permission to use “private enforcement” to sweep the encampments if the city fails to do almost sounds like vigilante-ism.

In fact, I can almost see a situation like that happening if all the encampments chaotically began to be swept, with nowhere for their dwellers to go. Poverty would be lining our streets in ways even more difficult to imagine than what’s happening now.

I suspect, however, that Flicker’s initiative will pass. Denver voters already have upheld the camping ban once.

Finding safe and humane solutions to homelessness no doubt is a work in progress. It’s important, however, not go backward in the process. I’m afraid Flicker’s proposal would do that.

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I have been in the news business more than 30 years, spending much of my career at some of the best newspapers in the country. Today, I specialize in Denver local news, health reporting, social justice issues, addiction/recovery/mental health news, and topics surrounding homelessness and human trafficking.

Denver, CO

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