Denver outlaws urban camping

Occupy Denver protester Richard French, 29, works on his laptop while camped out on the sidewalk at Civic Center Park in Denver. Enlarge photo

Ed Andrieski/Associated Press

Occupy Denver protester Richard French, 29, works on his laptop while camped out on the sidewalk at Civic Center Park in Denver.

DENVER – The Denver City Council has approved an ordinance that bans camping on public or private property without permission.

The City Council approved the proposal in a 9-4 vote Monday. It comes seven years after the city embraced an ambitious plan to provide housing and job training for Denver’s homeless.

Backers say it’s intended to eliminate a hazard to the health and safety of homeless people as well as to the rest of the population.

Opponents say the ban ignores the fact that the city doesn’t have enough shelter space. They say it could drive the homeless to other cities or into hiding, making it harder to find 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.”

Police spokesman Sonny Jackson said officers would first try to get a homeless person to a shelter. “It would be a last resort that we would ticket or arrest someone,” he said at Monday’s meeting.

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.

Denver’s 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.

On a preliminary vote, the proposal got nine votes in favor and four opposed.

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 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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