Guest Post: Denver’s camping ban dehumanizes the very people the city is supposed to help

Photo by K Kendall via Flickr:Creative Commons
Photo by K. Kendall via Flickr:Creative Commons

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.

The Colorado Independent occasionally runs guest posts from government officials, local experts and concerned citizens on a variety of topics. These posts are meant to provide diverse perspectives and do not represent the views of The Independent. To pitch a guest post, please contact tips@coloradoindependent.com or visit our submission page

Sophia Lawson-Cornish is a former Saint Francis Center Outreacher Worker and Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, Housing Intake Coordinator. She served in these roles from February 2015 through June 2018 , and has worked with unhoused and displaced community members for over 15 years. She currently resides in New Orleans working towards juvenile criminal justice reform. This guest post was written with two city Homeless Outreach workers, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of jeopardizing their jobs.

16 COMMENTS

  1. Sofia. I keep a few boxes stored in my home for a few homeless people. A few more would be okay. Any client you trust, I trust. Connect us, and we can make this happen.

    (Enough of us, and this could solve much of the problem you write of. Why should 300 prevent that?)

  2. It’s instructive to note that the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless opposes the so-called Right to Survive initiative because of what they call “unintended consequences (that) will not resolve the complex crisis we are experiencing in Denver.”

    For 30 years the CCH has provided an “integrated housing approach combining high-quality housing for homeless families with affordable homes for individuals and families with lower incomes. Wrap-around supportive services such as counseling, life skills training, financial literacy, and employment assistance contribute to housing stability for those who were once homeless”

    Other American cities are struggling with the problems and unintended consequences caused by homelessness. There are those who believe the underlying cause of homelessness is drugs and the drug problem must be resolved first. Still others believe mental health problems exacerbate the homeless problem.

    According to bisnow.com San Francisco’s hotels are facing one of those “unintended consequences” the CCH fears could happen here. “The city’s idyllic image of the Golden Gate bridge and grandiose views of the bay are being replaced by concerns about needles and feces littering the streets, homeless citizens sleeping on sidewalks or in Bay Area Rapid Transit stations and aggression toward visitors by people with untreated mental illness. Visitors are noticing and rethinking booking events and vacations at hotels around the city.”

    San Francisco is not alone in facing the “unintended consequences” caused by homelessness. Here from weeklystandard.com is what Seattle is facing, “Heroin is an unusually dangerous drug—wickedly addictive and far more lethal to its abusers than cocaine or alcohol. But Licton Springs Village, a microcommunity of 30 tiny houses and a couple of large dormitory tents—one that is officially sanctioned by the City of Seattle—takes a permissive view of drug abuse. It’s a “low-barrier” community, meaning that people can use drugs freely here. Most homeless shelters and encampments demand residents live drug and alcohol free. But here, clean needles are distributed to the residents to prevent the spread of disease, and Narcan is available to resuscitate people who overdose.”

    The homeless in Seattle have taken over a Jewish cemetery. This from mynorthwest.com “( homeless) have hacked into the power supply of the cemetery and have stolen the power. Nothing happened to them. They are still there. We had to spend $50,000 to clear an area of the cemetery that wasn’t ready for development yet, it was about 30-50 years away from being developed because prostitutes were working the woods; drug addicts were working the woods. So our groundskeepers come out in the mornings, and they find meth on the tombstones. People have defecated on the tombstones. Not to mention the numerous dirty syringes left lying around.”

    Seattle television station KOMO produced a documentary on the Seattle homeless problem and it’s available on You Tube. It’s entitled “Seattle is dying” and it’s well worth watching..

  3. 300 will not pass it a pipe dream for some people who believe homeliness is a lifestyle. Have Bill and Sue tried the Samaritan House, they have a family units, I lived there it took me one week to get in (sorry no drug or alcohol allow). As for Bill, he better take some responsibility he a father now, he can find work or is pot(drug test) more important than being father.

    • Samaritan now has a waitlist of 6 months and Bill does not drink or do pot. The problem was the ID. He passed several drug tests. Don’t just assume you know what you’re talking about.

  4. You are so misinformed. They don’t live in shelters because shelters do not allow them to do drugs and the city supports them living on the streets in camps where they can do drugs freely. They don’t want to be told what to do so they camp on the street and get high. Get rid of these low lives once and for all. BAN HOMELESS CAMPING NOW!!!

  5. I see the “Vote NO :We Can Do Better” signs in the most middle class neighborhoods, where I’ve never seen an urban camper, like Washington Park, or along that fancy stretch along sixth avenue between Colorado and Quebec. In my opinion,.the homeless experience shouldn’t be criminalized until after we HAVE done better. A lot better! While we are waiting to do better, I think that the predicament of having nowhere to live in the richest country in the world could be, at least, alleviated with 1) more porto potties and some should have running water 2) free entrance to all rec centers where those without homes could bathe. (Now, I think, there is one free rec center for those In need, and for the others, everyone pays)3. A camping area that is specifically for those experiencing homelessness, like, say, one of Denver’s big park s,with bathrooms, picnic tables,a nd camping pads, and patrols to insure the safety of campers. Why aren’t developers of luxury buildings made to reserve a wing of that building for small apartments that are specifically for people who can’t afford even “affordable” housing?” of which there’s very little. If potential residents have an income, they should pay a percentage of that income for rent, and the rest should be subsidized by the City until the residents of the small apartment can afford more. .Those without homes are always associated with trash, and in fact, they do leave trash. Why? When was the last time you saw a trash basket in, say, Capitol Hill? The kids from the school down the street dump as much trash as the people without homes, and you wouldn’t believe the trash and junk the millennials who can afford homes leave in the alley. And dog dew everywhere! As for drugs, I’d use them too if I was homeless. . It has been documented that many deaths from Opioids take place in middle-class homes.

  6. Comments from well-meaning people who have never been one of the majority of homeless people who do NOT fit any of the negative stereotypes (my educated guess is that this is 80% of all those meeting the definition of homeless, most of whom maintain a low profile) cause me to continue shaking my head.

    To me, a man who lived outdoors in Boulder, CO and its environs for a decade, never getting a ticket for anything nor being arrested, I’m shaking my head at both sides on this issue of urban camping. I could never imagine wanting to be part of a mob of unwashed, drunken, drugged-up, loutish bums trashimg public areas in any city both day and night.

    But, at the same time, I have nothing but contempt for the homeless shelter / services industry which has wasted tens-of-millions of dollars in Denver alone and has no positive results to show in terms of reducing the numbers of homeless people overall. The creed of organized do-gooders everywhere seems to be: More Homeless People = More Money, and it’s painfully obvious to this “chronically homeless” man that they have no intention of putting themselves out of business. Most don’t profit by it in a monetary sense; those are the people whose most imporatnt goal is to feel good about themselves. Of course, there are a few in positions of leadership at homeless shelter / services providers making a ton of money (for nothing).

    My advice to anyone on the streets in Denver is to move to a smaller city, live alone or with one other homeless camper on the town’s outskirts, stay clean and sober, be respectful to others at all times, and find productive ways to occupy your time. Because of some long-term physical problems, I’m now living in a residential care facility, but I started my hobby of blogging about homelessness way back in 2009 and continue to this day.

    I’d have a hard time choosing which is worse: 1) Living in the Third World-style squalor of one of Denver’s makeshift homeless camps with 100 others, or 2) being stuck in some silly revolving door program leading to so-called transitional housing in a homeless ghetto project, hassled by ignorant case managers at every turn, until fleeing back to live free of such constraints.

    I’ve never understood the do-gooders who want to apologize for and enable the worst-behaved transients, who are a small minority making all homeless folks look bad. I can say, on behalf of most of the homeless people I’ve known since 2008, that the bums and their sponsors all need to just go away and leave us be, in peace!

  7. Mr. Weller,

    I enjoyed your comment. In fact, I really enjoyed your comment and I have a suggestion: The Colorado Independent occasionally runs guest posts from concerned citizens to provide diverse perspectives. To pitch a guest post, please contact tips@coloradoindependent.com or visit our submission page.

    I think your comment has the kind of “diverse perspective” the Colorado Independent is looking for and could be published, as is, as a guest post.

    It’s just a suggestion but if you decide against it I’d like to ask a question: What percentage of those who are homeless do you think have either drug problems or untreated mental health problems?

    • I’m published frequently enough as it is, and lately it seems like I’m spending a fair amount of time trying to correct the misinformation being put out by others. Originally, I was a “community blogger” for the Boulder Daily Camera,, but they received many complaints (and even threats of lawsuits) from the homeless shelter / services industry; in 2012, I started my own WordPress website to get away from that hassle. When I receive complaints now at https://homelessphilosopher.wordpress.com/ I either delete them or make them the subject of new blog posts.

      You ask a good question, which I’ll answer like this: Many more homeless people are casual drinkers or druggies than are disabled by substance abuse. Same thing is true in the general population. We all remember the drunk guy we saw passed out on a sidewalk somewhere, and forget about the homeless people like me who might drink a donated bottle of ale 3 or 4 times a year. Remember, there also exists a Substance Abuse Treatment Industry in this country, more corrupt than the homeless shelter / services industry, which even touts this pearl of wisdom to keep abusers in the grips of their addiction: “Relapse is a part of recovery.” Likewise. most mental health issues are not disabling, but again the disability rights advocates including attorneys make a living from getting clients hooked on SSI / SSDI monthly benefits forever. Once they become dependents of the social services system, very few ever get free from it.

  8. I love the way this issue exposes the cruelest among us. It’s like an unintended personality test.

    Makes it very easy to spot the sociopaths.

  9. I think John Parvensky at CCH pay’s “himself” 450K ? The homeless “Racket” in Denver is bettter than being in the mob!

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.