As former and current Homeless Outreach workers in the city of Denver, we feel it is important to shed light on our experiences working alongside our un-housed community members regarding the need for Initiative 300, the Right to Survive measure that would overturn the city’s urban camping ban. We feel it is especially important to speak up as many of our current and former co-workers wholeheartedly support Initiative 300 but are fearful of being reprimanded, potentially losing their jobs, or causing their organizations, which do such incredible work for our communities, to lose city funding.
We want to put faces on the ways the current camping ban is negatively affecting our clients and our ability to connect people to services. As outreach workers, we are in the streets every day building relationships, providing resources and helping our community members into housing. We are not “moving people along”, threatening people, or anything even remotely close to the term harassment. Here is one of countless stories about how the criminalization of homelessness is affecting the lives of our houseless neighbors and making it harder for outreach workers to do our job.
Bill and Sue had met outreach workers and obtained socks and other hygiene items multiple times, but had not yet begun any meaningful work on housing until Sue found out that she was 3 months pregnant. They had avoided shelters because our family shelters do not consider expecting couples a family until after a child is birthed. Even though they were camping in hidden areas along the Platte, they would often return from work to find their camp had been swept. They lost their IDs in a sweep, and subsequently had trouble finding work. When they found out that Sue was pregnant they connected with an outreach worker to begin working towards housing. It took awhile to get an established working relationship because they lacked a phone and their camps were repeatedly swept away. The outreach worker had to invest several days searching for them each time they were swept, derailing service plans. Finally they found a place where they pitched their tent and did not have to move for nearly a week. By this time Sue was six months pregnant, and they were feeling desperate. They quickly collected the documents needed to obtain an ID, but on the day they were supposed to go to the DMV, park rangers and police showed up and told Bill and Sue to move along. Instead of going to the DMV that day to obtain an ID, which is vital to both housing and employment, they spent the day moving their camp. While they planned to look for housing with their new IDs, they instead spent the next month going to court and completing community service. When Sue had her baby, the couple, now a family of three, remained homeless. Most family shelters have wait lists that are six months long. The Department of Human Services only offers a family temporary shelter for 14 days a year. Had the couple been able to remain in a stable place without worrying about their things getting swept, had they not had to take care of the tickets they kept getting every time a park ranger or police officer saw them camping, had they been able to get their IDs and apply for housing and employment, this couple may have had an apartment to take their newborn baby to and enough stability for Bill to find employment.
This story illustrates how criminalization dehumanizes members of our community and obstructs service provision. Although we do not agree with those who oppose Initiative 300, we do agree that “we can do better.” Continuing to spend tax dollars on pushing people who are poor and unhoused out of our city and into places where they truly cannot access services, receive life-saving care, begin to work on accessing housing, or just feel like they have worth in society, simply cannot be Denver’s road to home. We can do better. We can offer people basic human rights and dignity, and the first step is passing Initiative 300.
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