Lawmakers consider giving the homeless the right to rest

In Wheat Ridge, police arrested people sitting on a bench for loitering near a school; the bench was not near a school. In Boulder, a man was turned away from a homeless shelter. He walked outside, lay on the ground and zipped himself into his sleeping bag to withstand 11 degree temperatures; police unzipped him and locked him up. In Fort Collins, panhandlers held signs asking for money; the panhandlers were hauled into custody.

These are a few of many stories homeless people have shared with the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado. The organization is rallying for a state bill to overrule city laws that disproportionally target homeless people.

“Without a state law protecting peaceful rest and survival for those without a home, we will continue to see a race to the bottom as municipalities compete to be the most hostile to people experiencing homelessness, hoping to drive them somewhere else, anywhere else,” says the group’s executive director Nathan Woodliff-Stanley.

This right-to rest bill, HB 1264, would give people “the right to use and move freely in public spaces without discrimination, to rest in public spaces without discrimination, to eat or accept food in any public space where food is not prohibited, to occupy a legally parked vehicle, and to have a reasonable expectation of privacy of one’s property.”

Yesterday, legislators gave the right-to-rest bill its first hearing. But lawmakers ran out of time and postponed the testimony.

“This is the defining civil rights issue of our time, and our state legislature has an amazing opportunity before them where they can make the right decision and stop the criminalization of poverty and homelessness,” Cheryl Diasto of the Fort Collins Homelessness Coalition said.

A representative from the City and County of Denver opposed the bill. She argued that Denver’s urban camping ban helps homeless people. After all, police officers are required to offer the homeless services before ever issuing a citation or making an arrest.

The crowd in the hearing room responded to the city’s opposition with hisses and boos.

Nicole Sisneros, who lived without a home for seven years and joined Occupy Denver to fight the city’s urban-camping ban, testified. She was the first person to get a ticket under Denver’s ordinance, she says.

“I understand people don’t want homeless people lounging everywhere, making their city look like trash. I understand that concept and why cities are afraid to pass a right to rest. But you have to understand that with sleep deprivation comes mental health problems, addiction problems. You’re actually pouring salt on the wound. It damages us in the long run.”

Testimony will continue April 27. Advocates vowed to not to rest until the bill was passed.

Nicole Sisneros spent 7 years homeless, two of them in Denver. She was the first person to receive a “camping ban” citation after it was passed in Denver. Photo by Tessa Cheek.