DENVER | Seven years after embracing an ambitious plan to provide housing and job training for Denver’s homeless, the City Council voted 9-4 Monday to impose restrictions that opponents — including Occupy protesters — say will make it illegal to have no home.
The ordinance bans eating, sleeping and storing personal possessions on public or private property without permission. It applies to anyone using any kind of shelter, even a blanket, other than clothing.
Backers say living in parks or on sidewalks is a threat to the health and safety of homeless people as well as to the rest of the city’s 600,000 residents. They say the ban will be accompanied by a push to provide more shelters.
Denver police say they won’t be looking for homeless people to throw in jail.
“It would be a last resort that we would ticket or arrest someone,” police spokesman Sonny Jackson said Monday, before the vote. Officers will first try to get a homeless person to a shelter.
“We don’t see homelessness as a crime,” he said. “It should not be criminalized.”
Opponents say the ban ignores the fact that the city doesn’t have enough shelters. They say it could drive the homeless to other cities or into hiding, making it harder to locate them and get them back on their feet.
If Denver’s shelters are full, “then essentially you are criminalizing the status of being homeless,” said John Parvensky, president of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. “People cannot avoid violating the law unless they stay awake all the time or leave Denver.”
In late 2004, the city, under then-Mayor John Hickenlooper, launched Denver’s Road Home, a 10-year-plan to eliminate homelessness. Executive Director Bennie Milliner said the program is about 65 percent of the way toward eliminating chronic homelessness, defined as being without shelter for a year.
Denver had 387 chronically homeless people in a 2012 survey, down from 980 in 2005, Milliner said.
Hickenlooper was elected governor in 2010. Hickenlooper’s spokesman said he and his staff were too occupied with a special session of the Legislature this week to comment on the proposed ordinance.
The current mayor, Michael Hancock, backs the proposal and says it doesn’t reflect any dissatisfaction with Denver’s Road Home.
“I just think it has to be more than just social programs,” Hancock said, adding that Denver police need the authority to compel people to leave unauthorized campsites.
About 12,600 people were homeless in the seven-county metropolitan Denver area on Jan. 23, according to a survey by the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative. About 5,200 of them were in the city of Denver.
Parvensky said Denver has 300 to 500 more homeless people than shelters can accommodate on any given night.
Hancock acknowledged that the city doesn’t have enough shelter space and said officials are working on that. But he said shelters are only part of the solution, and that family members of the homeless need to help.
Denver’s Road Home has pledged to find shelter for anyone who wants it, even if established shelters are full, Milliner said.
Councilman Albus Brooks, a co-sponsor of the ordinance, said the city will have 300 more shelter beds this summer and is looking for ways to find funding for a proposed 24-hour shelter.
“With this ban is a commitment of services that would not have been there otherwise,” Brooks said in an email to The Associated Press.
The ordinance states that before officers can issue a citation or make an arrest, they must determine whether subjects need assistance for homelessness or for mental or physical illness, and try to summon a social worker if they do. A draft of the ordinance did not list the punishment.
Denver’s proposed ban reflects a national trend of crackdowns on homeless people and is more sweeping than most because it applies to all public and private land, 24 hours a day, said Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.
“This is exactly not the way that cities and governments should be responding to homelessness,” she said.
The Law Center estimates as many as 3.5 million people are homeless nationwide.
It costs less to get the homeless into housing than it does to jail them, Foscarinis said. A ban in Denver could make it harder for people to escape homelessness because an arrest record can shut them out of jobs, she said.
Hancock said the ban also would apply to young transients and Occupy Denver protesters, who resumed their activity on May Day when warmer weather returned.
“We certainly never shied away from the fact that we … neither expect or want people to be sleeping on our malls or our public rights of way,” he said.
Occupy protesters had numerous run-ins with the Colorado State Patrol and other agencies last fall when officers cleared the makeshift campsites from a park near the state Capitol.
“If it becomes illegal to sleep on the sidewalks, I imagine I will be sent to jail along with many other people down here,” said Richard French, a 29-year-old protester sitting near the Capitol.
“I think it’s wrong. It violates human rights,” he said. “It’s like a fee for sleeping on a sidewalk.”
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