“Shame!” “Shame!” cried a man in the back of the Capitol’s largest, packed committee room. The vote was not yet tallied, but it was clear: The Homeless Bill of Rights was failing. A sergeant-at-arms escorted the man from the room. Other protestors replaced him.
The final votes were announced. The bill flopped.
“Where’s your compassion?” yelled another man, dropping his head into his hands. All around him people stood up and began advancing on the panel of lawmakers who voted 8-3 against the so-called “right to rest” measure.
A middle-aged woman in a suit began to yell, “People are suffering and dying on the streets of Denver because people like you won’t allow homeless people to be treated like human beings. You’re wrong! You’re out of line!”
The sergeant-at-arms asked her to calm down as he escorted her away. Her cries were muffled by others.
The hubbub continued and state troopers arrived to clear the room. Their message was consistent with the committee’s vote: Move along.
“Oh yeah, move along, move along,” came bitter mumbles from the departing crowd. “Move along to where?”
“Move along to where” is a slogan used across Colorado by homeless-rights activists trying to overturn municipal urban-camping bans, in this case, with a statewide bill. The bans require police to shuffle along homeless people who are sleeping in public, pushing them either to a shelter, to services, to jail or just out of public view.
Debating the segregated city
The four-hour hearing on HB 1264 pitted city and business representatives against homeless people, faith leaders and members of the civil rights group Denver Homeless Out Loud.
Terese Howard of DHOL testified that of nearly 500 homeless people her organization surveyed, 70 percent had been harassed or arrested by cops for resting in public places. She said many homeless people need the option to sleep during the day, because they work nights when shelters are open. She also pointed out that the bill would allow people on the fringe to sleep in their cars if needed.
“This bill does not mean people can throw their trash about,” said Howard. “It does not mean people can block passageways.”
Even so, business leaders worried because the bill deems private-public-partnership areas like the 16th Street Mall or Union Station purely public, a place where homeless people would have the right to rest. The business owners said it was difficult to do business with a homeless person sleeping in the ally or doorway of a shop.
Sponsor Rep. Jovan Melton, D-Aurora, said those arguments were a coded effort to segregate cities by the old tropes of race and class.
“I heard today that it’s hard to do business when a homeless person is sleeping in the alley,” said Melton. “Fifty years ago they said it was hard to do business when you have an African American sitting at the lunch counter.”
Many city officials argued against the premise that homelessness has been criminalized altogether.
Kathy Haddock of the Boulder City Attorney’s Office testified that her city already spends more than $2 million annually providing services and housing to homeless people.
“If Boulder was for criminalizing homelessness, it wouldn’t spend this kind of taxpayer money trying to find alternatives to homelessness,” said Haddock. She added that establishing a right to rest would put further financial burden on cities because cleaning up the public areas that people camp in is expensive.
Robert Hudson, also a member of DHOL, didn’t buy the financial argument. He pointed out that Denver spent $63 million on services through Denver’s Road Home, only to have those efforts slammed by the city auditor.
Sponsor Rep. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton, agreed that more services are still needed, but said the real issue at hand was about discrimination and civil liberties.
“The bottom line is there are not enough services, there just are not,” concluded Salazar. “So what’s the answer to not enough services? Well, municipalities won’t answer the question, but the answer is that they criminalize the homeless … It is depraved to criminalize the least among us. Human rights come before local control. Human rights come before business rights.”
“I agree that maybe 30 years ago or so we stopped funding our social infrastructure, but I just don’t see how this bill gets us to rebuilding that infrastructure,” countered committee Chair Rep. Su Ryden, D-Aurora. “I know a lot of people will be disappointed by my vote… but I can’t be a ‘yes.”
That’s when the yelling began.
Once pushed from the committee room, advocates of the bill clustered in the hallway chanting “Homeless lives matter,” and “Every day and every night, housing is a human right.”
Salazar and Melton worked their way to the center of the crowd and shouted for everyone’s attention.
“The perseverance of the human spirit always prevails,” called out Salazar. “We’re asking you to stand with us… but I don’t want anyone to get in trouble today, because that doesn’t move the cause forward, because we’re building to next year.”
“A lot of of people are going to freeze to death before next year,” yelled a man in the crowd.
“I get that,” said Salazar. “But the vote has been cast, and the bill did not pass.”
“We need the ability to bring this bill back and continue the fight,” added Melton. “Trust me, we are here. We’re not going to give up until this gets done.”
The crowd thinned. An equally large crowd moved in to debate construction-defects reform, which some say is behind the lack of affordable housing in cities like Denver.
Billie Bramhall, 88, lingered, observing this turnover. Bramhall worked all her life as a city planner in Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Denver. She remembers back to the era of World War I, when Denver Mayor Robert Speer prohibited the use of “No Walking on the Grass” signs in the city’s nascent parks.
Bramhall became active in DHOL when the city’s urban camping ban was first introduced — it offended her understanding of Speer’s legacy and of her own profession.
“We planners want the parks and public spaces to be open to everyone,” said Bramhall. “We don’t think there’s anything terrible about families in the park with children seeing homeless people.”
Jonas Ceelen, who has been homeless in this city for eight months due to accident-related medical bills, echoed Bramhall’s thoughts about the visibility of poverty.
“It’s easy to be disconnected when you can go into your home,” he said. “Take a day and get to know people on the street. That’s all I can say. It will open your mind.”
Billie Bramhall with a “Move Along to Where?” button. In the background, an advocate of the bill weeps. Photo by Tessa Cheek.