Denver rids parks of homeless meals; charity says DNC is to blame

You are welcome here. That’s the message that Denver officials say they hope to convey to its homeless community as the Democratic National Convention approaches. No one will be swept or bused out of the city in an effort to "clean up" Denver during the event. But some homeless advocates say that a city program makes the homeless feel particularly unwelcome in public parks, and that the city plans to empty parks of the homeless before the convention. 

Called Come On In, the program, which was launched in 2006, urges charities that serve outdoor meals to the homeless to move their operations indoors. If the "feeders," as officials call them, serve indoors, then the homeless will have access to clean water and toilets, not to mention a plethora of other services. Plus, the program will placate neighbors who complain that the homeless litter and defecate in picnic areas.

"We want to make sure that people are receiving food that was safely prepared and that they can eat a meal at a table and eat a meal with dignity and be treated in a humane way," says Deborah Ortega, executive director of Denver’s Commission to End Homelessness, the city board that created Denver’s Road Home. "There were groups that would drive down the street and throw out sandwiches to groups in a park. How humane is that?"

In the past year, the Come On In program has cut the number of charities serving outdoor meals from 17 to 5, and Denver’s homeless officials say that many of these groups are now serving meals indoors. Neighbors, they say, have almost completely stopped complaining about garbage in their communities.

Yet some homeless advocates question the impetus behind the program. Mackenzie Liman of Food Not Bombs, which still serves outdoors in Civic Center Park, says that the purpose of the Come On In program "was to decrease the visibility of homelessness downtown." Liman attended city meetings in 2006 and 2007, where she says the city’s homeless officials said they wanted the program in full swing by fall of 2008. The timing, she says, made her suspicious that Denver wanted to scour its parks of the homeless before the DNC.

"Because of the way the meetings evolved, there was funding and energy put into decreasing feedings in Civic Center Park. That happened to run parallel to preparations for the DNC," says Liman, who maintains that the Food Not Bombs meal is an important picnic for Denver’s hungry, and is not less safe or less sanitary than eating indoors. "As someone who works with homeless people and with people who depend on services downtown, when I hear that there is a big event that the media is excited about, my heart sinks because it is not going to be good for the people I work with."

Ortega says that the city never came up with an end goal for the program but instead wanted to implement it as quickly as possible. "It was an issue we were dealing with before anyone knew that the Democratic National Convention was coming to Denver. This was part of the work of the 10-year plan," she says, referring to Denver’s decade-long effort to end homelessness, called Denver’s Road Home, which began in 2005. "It has nothing to do with the Democratic National Convention coming here." Denver clinched the DNC in January of 2007.

Denver’s Commission to End Homelessness initiated discussions with the police department, Denver Human Services, "feeders," and others in 2006 and named this group the Public Feeding Coalition. According to Liman and others, Food Not Bombs expressed its concerns with the program early on, but its members felt stymied when they were asked to weigh in on tangential issues, like the design of the Come On In brochures, instead of to address the true purpose of the program.

The Commission to End Homelessness considered banning public meals for the homeless altogether but decided against legislation. "Just because you have a law on the books doesn’t mean that solves the problem," says Ortega. "Our goal is to try and get people moved into housing. As we move down that path, our hope is that we don’t need to feed people outdoors because the folks are inside. The Denver Rescue Mission offers free meals for folks that find themselves experiencing hardship."

Commander Deborah Dilley, who oversees Denver Police Department’s District 6, which includes downtown and Civic Center Park, says that she wanted to test the program without legislation first. It has, indeed, been successful, she says; neighbors have largely stopped complaining. Orlando and Las Vegas attempted to outlaw outdoor meals for the homeless, but in Las Vegas the ban was overturned in court. Dilley warns that Denver police may still ticket the homeless who show up at meals if they engage in unlawful behavior. And, she says, that’s reason enough to move everyone indoors.

"Some of the behaviors [by homeless people] are illegal. The homeless person who would sit on someone’s step or urinate or defecate in someone’s yard —  that is illegal," she said. "The feeders would not get in trouble for that, but the homeless people who were there to eat would. You could put the people you are trying to help in danger."

For now, Denver police will continue contacting groups that serve meals outside, and ask them to move indoors. But Liman says that Food Not Bombs, for one, is not going anywhere. "The [city’s] goal has been to give people food and housing and maintain their dignity," she says. "If you say that is what you are about, then don’t sweep people under the carpet."

This is part one of a three-part series on the growing controversy between city officials and homeless service programs ahead of the Democratic National Convention.

Tomorrow: Denver’s Come On In program.

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