EDITORIAL: Of course Denver’s camping ban is cruel, but there’s a better way

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In this Monday, March 7, 2016, photo, Salvatore Garofalo sits in a lawn chair as he smokes a cigarette in a makeshift homeless camp across from the Denver Rescue in downtown Denver. City officials evicted people from the homeless camps that have popped up around homeless shelters and in public places around the Mile High City. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Denver’s homeless problem is everyone’s homeless problem, and it’s about to get worse.

Denver County Judge Johnny Barajas last week struck down that city’s cruel and ineffective homeless camping ban. The ruling comes after a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision that struck down a Boise, Idaho ban on camping in public places, according to stories by The Denver Post and the Associated Press.

Despite bravado about an appeal from Denver officials, the city’s illogical and brutal camping ban is over. Since that city is ill-equipped to deal with the fallout from ending the ban, the thousands of homeless people pushed into Denver alleys and behind commercial dumpsters will return to where Denver chased them from after enacting the ban in 2012.

The ban was never meant to solve that city’s problem with a flood of homeless people. It was created to end what many considered to be an eyesore in downtown Denver where throngs of homeless people set up camp on sidewalks and in parks. The ban was created to not only push homeless people out of the way downtown, but out of the city and into surrounding communities.

It did just that.

That measure made it illegal to sleep or even rest under a tarp in the snow or a blanket in the cold anywhere camping isn’t specifically allowed in Denver — which is essentially nowhere. It also made it illegal to lie or sit on sidewalks and select public areas from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m.

Once an anomaly, homeless people pushing their lives loaded in grocery carts along suburban streets has now become commonplace.

A growing community of metro-area residents with no home are now living in Aurora vacant lots, under metro bridges, behind suburban strip malls, and in cars along streets and in shopping center parking lots across the metro area.

It’s a crisis that too many elected officials believe doesn’t exist when they aren’t forced to look at it.

News accounts about the ban being overturned last week erroneously reported that Denver voters rejected Denver’s ballot Initiative 300 as a repeal of the camping ban. The measure was not a repeal but a replacement with a well-meaning bill that would not have worked to help homeless people. It was a bad idea that would instead have worked against people without homes, and the entire community.

Findings that Denver’s camping ban is unconstitutional is an opportunity for the entire region. Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman has made clear he sees the seriousness and complexity of the issue. Aurora’s new mayor, looking for an opportunity to work toward metro cooperation, should lead an effort to create a metro-wide commission on homelessness. Such an endeavor would help everyone understand that every community has a stake in permanent and effective solutions.

An Aurora-led effort would allow Denver the dignity of ending its own camping ban before courts force them to, and without a plan. Other communities should be compelled to create a metro-wide task force knowing that Denver could otherwise react by creating new ways to herd homeless people out of their city and into surrounding areas.

Most important, a regional effort would help millions of metro residents understand that homelessness is rarely a choice or a choice made willingly. Such a cooperative effort would go a long ways in helping the region understand that it is unlawful to punish people for poverty or for personal crisis, and it’s especially repugnant to cruelly deny them the ability to simply protect themselves from the cold, the rain and the snow.

Denver is better than its illegal camping ban. We all are, and this is an opportunity for the region to show it.