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Tears streamed down my cheeks last night as I listened to Sophia Lawson Cornish, a longtime outreach worker in Denver, speak at the Capitol. She’s spent years trying to help people. Trying to find them housing. Trying to connect them to the services they need. The truth is there simply isn’t enough housing. And there aren’t enough services. So, mothers are left hiding with their children under tarps on the banks of the Platte River. Women are sleeping in alleys to try and get a little rest. Many wind up having their belongings stolen. Some wind up getting raped. They try travelling in packs to protect one another. But they are consistently pushed out and told to move. Camps are dispersed. And, inevitably, these people without homes, desperate for a place to rest, fade further into the shadows, vulnerable and alone.
This is the fourth year in a row I have sat in the same committee room in Colorado’s House of Representatives listening to people who have experienced homelessness – or those who work to support them – bear witness to a complete and total breakdown of humanity in our communities. And, for the fourth year, I’ve watched Colorado lawmakers deny the most vulnerable among us the opportunity to speak to the full House about their needs for rest, food, and shelter from the elements when they have nowhere else but public spaces to survive. Their efforts keep failing, as they did at the Statehouse last night. In the meantime, over these four years, more than 500 people have died just on the streets of Denver.
Lawmakers, city leaders, and business owners continue to be stuck on this issue, able only to see problems or solutions around homelessness. They keep overlooking that this bill is about real, live people stuck in the middle – people who get cold when the temperature drops and wet when it rains. They keep ignore that homeless people didn’t chose this lot in life. They didn’t cause homelessness. Their challenges are symptoms of our broken systems riddled with vast economic disparity, skyrocketing housing prices, a cost of living in Denver that dwarfs wages, and decades of dramatically underfunded health- and social services.
The Right to Rest bill is about seeing homelessness not just as a policy challenge, but recognizing the dignity of human beings struggling, literally, to survive under viaducts, awnings and bushes all around us. The bill would establish five basic rights for all people using public spaces: the right to rest on public property in a non-obstructive manner; the right to shelter oneself from the elements; the right to eat, share, accept, or give food in public spaces; the right to occupy a vehicle or recreational vehicle; and the right to a reasonable expectation of privacy for one’s personal property. The bill comes with no fiscal note, does nothing to limit services or undermine housing, and upholds private property protections for all. It simply attempts to ensure the most basic necessities for our most vulnerable neighbors.
As is made clear in this recent study, and as is obvious in our current political climate, our bankrupt system is not changing anytime soon. In a 2017 count of people living without homes (notoriously under representative of the hidden homeless), volunteers identified 10,940 people experiencing homelessness statewide. Some 3,859 of them slept in vehicles, on the streets, or on riverbanks. Simultaneously, there is a shortage of 32,000 homes in Denver that could take more than 10 years to correct. Housing needs are at record highs, wages are stagnant and show no signs of increasing, and cuts to healthcare will assure services are dramatically inaccessible for years to come.
The Right to Rest bill isn’t about fixing this complex web of long-term, systemic problems. It’s about something much more basic: Recognizing that homeless people exist. While leaders are trying to expand housing and services, we must treat the people without them with dignity and recognize that they may be sleeping in an alley or on a park bench not because they want to, but because they need to.
Perhaps if the easy options of ordering homeless people to “move along,” ticketing them, or jailing were taken off the table as sufficient ways to “address homelessness,” we would be forced to see people who are struggling, to ensure their humanity and dignity, and to think together of creative ways to protect and help them survive. I call on our leaders to devote the imagination and resources needed to assure that outreach workers like Sophia are able to make meaningful progress toward a day when there are enough homes so that everyone has a safe warm place to sleep, and there are enough services so that everyone who needs help can get it. Until that day comes, those who have been caught in our broken systems, those who’ve been forgotten, abused, and left behind must be allowed to simply survive – to cover themselves when it is cold, to be fed when they are hungry, to have a place that is safe and protected. This is a matter of life and death.
Mayor Michael Hancock, with his urban camping ban, and Colorado’s lawmakers, with their fourth rejection of a right to rest bill, continue ignoring the fact that people – folks who are the mothers, fathers, children, brothers and sisters of other real people – are dying as a result of public policies devoid of basic human decency. And, as elected officials, they are doing so in our names.
We as Coloradans, Denverites and human beings are better than this. How many more years must pass and how many more deaths must we allow until we start acting like it?
Flickr Creative Commons photo by Sara Ristic