Rumors over the plight of Denver’s homeless during the Democratic National Convention in August have been swirling for months. Some think their backpacks and shopping carts will be confiscated. Others believe they won’t be allowed downtown, including along the banks of Cherry Creek, a favorite hangout that flows just beyond the Pepsi Center. Or, most common and most alarming, that they’ll be bused out of the city altogether.
Fears surrounding the convention are understandable, says Susan Bachar, communications director with Denver’s Road Home, the city’s 10-year plan to end homelessness. After all, New York’s homeless were vigorously targeted in the months leading up to that city’s 2004 Republican National Convention. According to the National Council for the Homeless, New York police routinely issued "quality of life" tickets to people sleeping on benches or sidewalks. And heightened security during the convention made it difficult for homeless people to access services in and around the security zone.
Denver’s homeless have no need to worry, say Bachar and Jamie Van Leeuwen, project manager for Denver’s Road Home. Nobody will be moved anywhere. In fact, most shelters throughout the city will take a "business as usual" approach to the convention, with a few organizations extending hours or involving the homeless in politics-related activities.
"I will be upfront in saying that there have been questions and speculation about whether Denver is going to move the homeless out of the city," says Van Leeuwen. "We are combating the ongoing theme that Denver is hiding the homeless. Not only are we not hiding them, we are registering them to vote. We want them to know that our doors are open to services."
The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless plans on sponsoring a voter registration drive for the homeless, while two shelters will provide big-screen TVs so that their clients can watch the convention coverage. And Denver’s organization for homeless teens, Urban Peak, will extend afternoon hours at its drop-in center, offering lunch, movies, and museum field trips to its clients.
"In that week, because of the high level of activity, it would be nice to offer them an alternative," says Kay Ramachandran, CEO of Urban Peak. "They could say they don’t want to come. That is their choice."
Some special attention to the homeless is necessary during the convention, says Deborah Dilley, the Denver Police Department’s commander who oversees the downtown district. Many of the city’s homeless suffer from mental illness and addiction; the chaotic nature of the DNC could disturb those at-risk.
"A great number of the homeless are downtown," says Dilley. "A great number of them are going to be affected by this event that is coming into their backyard. They live in public places. And now they are going to have ‘X’ number of people who are going to be here. They are going to be impacted."
Denver’s approach to the convention has come under fire from at least one advocate for the homeless. Randle Loeb, vice president of the board of Metro Denver Homeless Initiative and a former homeless person himself. Loeb says that the city’s plans to involve the homeless amount to sugarcoating the intractable issue.
"I am devastated by our lack of planning and action to deal with these innumerable, very difficult, hard-core people with long histories of substance abuse and personal problems and God knows what else," he says. "It is going to have an impact on the convention no matter what."
Loeb also believes that the homeless — especially those carrying backpacks or packages — will be inadvertently targeted by the federal security forces coming to Denver for the event, including the Secret Service and the FBI. In this case, he says, the city’s claims that they will protect the homeless will be meaningless.
"They are looking for terrorists and every one who is out of the ordinary is fair game."
Loeb also worries about homeless people being kicked out of city parks when permitted protests end.
But Commander Dilley promises that the homeless won’t be unfairly targeted by any law enforcement during the DNC. She is more concerned, she says, about protesters taking advantage of homeless people by hiring them to show up at rallies.
"We want to make sure that the homeless are making appropriate decisions," she says.
The city, Van Leeuwen said, plans to distribute brochures among Denver’s 3,900 homeless, detailing the services and programming available to them during the convention.
In St. Paul, the site of September’s Republican National Convention, the homeless will be able to access a large Catholic Charities shelter located across the street from the event center, despite much speculation to the contrary.