What We Can Learn from Denver Criminalizing Homelessness

Right to Survive

Losing the fight for the Right to Survive, and preparing for the next one

Voters in Denver had a chance earlier this month to repeal their city’s cruel laws that criminalize homelessness. Dubbed the “Right to Survive,” here is the text of Initiative 300:

“Shall the voters of the City and County of Denver adopt a measure that secures and enforces basic rights for all people within the jurisdiction of the City and County of Denver, including the right to rest and shelter oneself from the elements in a non-obstructive manner in outdoor public spaces; to eat, share accept or give free food in any public space where food is not prohibited; to occupy one’s own legally parked motor vehicle, or occupy a legally parked motor vehicle belonging to another, with the owner’s permission; and to have a right and expectation of privacy and safety of or in one’s person and property?”

Unfortunately, it was not passed.

A majority of Denver voters were opposed to the measure that “secures and enforces basic rights for all people.”

It’s disappointing news, to say the least, but there are lessons to be learned from this.

Backlash to a Bad Ban

Initiative 300 was proposed by and for the people of the city and voted on by those same Denver residents. If passed, it would have combated the harsh restrictions put in place by an earlier ban on urban camping. This urban camping ban has been in effect since 2012. And, it was one of the first major laws Mayor Michael Hancock put on the books.

This is the same man who called homeless tent communities, “unsanitary, unsafe, and unhealthy.”

In a city that has failed to provide adequate housing for all of its residents, what choice do homeless people have but to take advantage of what little shelter is available to them?

Being subjected to judgment and vitriol from someone who claims a 19,500 square foot Mayoral mansion as an official residence is a needless indignity piled onto people who are already having a rough go of it.

The ban itself is far more harmful, unhealthy, unsafe, inhumane, and cruel than any row of tents.

Predictable Objections

As always in these types of situations, opposition to the Right to Survive arose in the form of “concern.” Opponents of the Right to Survive, ironically calling themselves Together Denver, tried to deflect blame for their hateful politics in the usual fashion.

To their opponents, they tried to appear concerned for the well being of those the ban affected most. They argued that it’s “inhumane” to allow anyone to sleep outside.

Of course, it is.

But allowing people to sleep outside, without the aid of any type of camping or survival gear and being subjected to police raids, is even less humane.

If Together Denver cared about homeless people, they would show up every other day of the year, advocating for improved shelter conditions, affordable housing, and expanded services until everyone is housed and an urban camping ban is simply unnecessary.

But that’s not really their concern. That much is clear from how they talk to each other. They spread fear-mongering rhetoric about homeless people “taking over the parks” and “sleeping in your front lawns.”

Effects of the Ban

Police say that very few arrests have been made related to the ban. But, data shows that almost 3,000 street checks were performed in Denver in 2018 alone. During these checks, possessions may be confiscated, with police going so far as to take blankets from people sleeping outside in the winter months. Mayor Hancock even stooped so low as to use thousands of dollars given as donations to help the homeless to instead fund these police sweeps and confiscations.

People are told to move on, but where are they supposed to move to?

Making it illegal to sleep outside can’t deter people who have no other options. And confiscating the few comforts they have is unimaginably cruel. Using money that was given with the intention of helping homeless people to enact this harm? That’s criminal.

Denver’s Future

This vote was the first opportunity the public had to overturn a bad ban. But I doubt it will be the last. Hopefully, Together Denver will back off their highly funded campaign of misinformation now that they’ve “won” and the myths they spread can be dispelled.

Denver will also be holding a runoff election on June 4th … just saying.

Every candidate but Hancock supports the repeal of the urban camping/public survival ban.

Lessons for the Rest of Us

Bans like these should be the last step in addressing the problems of homelessness, not the first. A police-first approach is a cruel, expensive, and unproductive method that can never lead to real change.

Where do we expect people to go when the police sweeps come through their camps if housing, shelter, and services haven’t been expanded first?

If we instead start with solving the real problems of homelessness, making available more affordable housing and filling in with homeless services until it’s built, we soon won’t have any need for urban camping bans like these.

Watching these events unfold has also taught us that the powers-that-be are perfectly willing to use their power and wealth against the least powerful and wealthy among us. Together Denver’s campaign out funded the Right to Survive campaign at a rate of 24-to-1.

But those donations come mostly from business owners, politicians, and notable people within the community. If we all band together from across the country and the world any time a fight like this comes up, we can outnumber them and help local organizations spread accurate information to combat their scare tactics. That’s the strength that we have. As such, it’s important to keep an ear to the ground. Join in from afar when you see votes like these coming up!

Regardless of this setback, homeless people and their allies will continue to fight for the right to survive. What other choice do we have?

Kayla Robbins

Kayla Robbins


Kayla Robbins is a freelance writer who works with big-hearted brands and businesses. When she's not working, she enjoys knitting socks, rolling d20s, and binging episodes of The Great British Bake Off.

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