Guest Post: Fear of homeless people underlies opposition to I-300

"Homeless," by Parc Cruz, via Flickr: Creative Commons

Denver Initiative 300, which would end the city’s ban on overnight camping in public spaces, has provoked important conversations about governance of and access to public space and our obligations to the poorest residents of our cities. The Right to Survive, as the measure is called, also forces us to consider the best strategies to address the ongoing crisis of homelessness in Denver.

The primary opposition has taken “we can do better” as its slogan and frames its opposition to I-300 as coming from a place of deep concern about people experiencing homelessness. Undoubtedly, many people who oppose I-300 do actually care about the well-being of those living in the streets, in their cars, or in shelters. Opponents say that the Right to Survive is not a good solution, and more than that, will make the crisis worse.

The initiative is indeed not a solution to homelessness, but that does nothing to diminish its value. It is a response to an honest assessment of current conditions.

Housing is prohibitively expensive, and meaningful help (such as subsidized or affordable housing, varied housing stock, case management) is scarce and difficult to obtain. Additionally, factors such as disability status, mental illness, substance use disorder, histories of trauma, poverty wages, previous justice involvement, belonging to the LGBTQI+ community and communities of color make the situation even more dire. Claims that the Right to Survive will lead to sprawling tent cities choking up parks and streets, surrounded by litter, or that it will lead to an increase in frivolous lawsuits against the city or non-profits, have such force because of the fear and concern they evoke. This fear runs deeper than these possible conditions and is a fear of the people who experience homelessness. Understanding this fear requires us to better understand homelessness.

There is a persistent myth that those who experience homelessness do so by choice — their experience comes from an unwillingness to play by the rules of the game, to care for themselves, to take responsibility for their lives. This is false — homelessness is a product of our economy, of market-driven housing that is not based on how much one could pay, not what poor people have to pay.

Given these conditions though, people do make choices to stay outside. Shelters, despite the genuine care and compassion of some shelter staff, are uncomfortable places, to say the least. They are crowded, and often times, folks are sleeping on the floor. Belongings are routinely stolen, people are routinely harassed and degraded. Given this, some people might decide to stay outside.

Also, shelters largely only serve individuals and families with children. This leaves out homeless people who want to stay with their partner, or their pets, often who don’t feel safe or welcome or free in shelters. Their only alternative to these shelters, unless safe and permanent housing is guaranteed to all — is the streets — or alleys, parks, cars, creek beds and underpasses.

Regulations, most controversially the “urban camping ban,” make exercising this choice a criminal act. While the camping ban is meant to help direct people to services, it does this through coercion, by threat of arrest or through a ticket that cannot be paid. The idea that people experiencing homelessness need to be forced to seek safe shelter and housing is oblivious to the shameful lack of both. Instead of helping people seek services, or even providing more services and housing, the response has been to criminalize people trying to survive. It is a ludicrous form of care. The caring nature of the camping ban is the same as the caring nature of Together Denver. This care seems an awful lot like fear, and instead of helping it seems intent on pushing people out of sight. Dismissing this legislation as “not a solution” misses the point and is out of touch. While of course we can do better, without the Right to Survive we are doing worse.

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

6 COMMENTS

  1. this post is so wrong in so many ways you are trying to define homelessness with one type of people there are so many different factors in why people are homeless yes the economy is one and the land lords need to be put in check .people do make it a choice to be homeless by not following rules . lets quit going to the goverment for help .if people would put the same effert in trying to get housing and curbing the rise of property as they do in trying to make a bill to force people to let them be homeless we might actually get some were give a man a fish he eats for a day teach a man to fish he will eat for life . i was 4 tears homeless and worked to get off the street and now i want to help get more off the street not just rest thank you

  2. Mr. Ackerson,

    Thank you for sharing your first hand experiences with homelessness.

    You mentioned, “there are so many different factors in why people are homeless”. What are some of those factors?

    Why were you able to escape homelessness when so many others haven’t? Is there an approach to homelessness that you think would be more effective?

    Again, thanks for your comment.

  3. I appreciate reading differing views about homelessness. Even those that have me scratching my head trying to understand things I never encountered as a homeless man in Boulder, CO for over a decade.

    Although the “Right to Survive” Initiative was crushed by Denver voters, I expect many of the self-styled homeless advocates and the ACLU will cling to it flawed reasoning.

    Let me start with the title of this commentary (and I understand that an editor may be responsible for it) which includes the phrase “fear of homeless people.” I’ve never encountered this from anyone in the broader community, and indeed many of them became my friends. Of course, I was clean and sober, quiet and respectful, and deliberately avoided being fixated on the fact that I lived outdoors year-round. When people would ask me about it, I offered my views without being ashamed or angry at society. (Likewise with being an ex-con from Missouri, who served time for non-violent crimes over 15 years ago.)

    Speaking only for myself, although I’m not at all unique in this respect, I chose to live as a hermit because I was tired of being part of the mainstream. I’ve said before that if I had been Catholic rather than agnostic, I might have joined a monastery in my middle age. (I’m 63 now, and a resident of a long-term care facility.)

    As for Denver homeless advocates’ pipe dream of repealing the camping ban: I camped on the outskirts of Boulder, kept a low profile, and never caused any problems — so I was never cited or arrested in all those years. And lots of law enforcement officers from different agencies would stop by to check on my welfare in the wintertime, too.

    Further: Instead of wasting more millions of dollars trying to house Marijuana Travelers and others who have no ties to Denver (nor to Colorado in many cases), pay for their bus tickets back to their home states; it will be much more cost-effective in the long run, and could be offered to petty offenders in lieu of being cited into court, fined, or jailed.

    It’s time for do-gooders to accept the TRUTH that they cannot solve homelessness for the entire country and must instead focus on Colorado’s own needs. Other cities in other states also offer social services and housing to the homeless, imperfect as the system may be, and they must take care of their own!

  4. ADDRESSING THE MYTHS OF HOMELESSNESS
    l. The cities and other government, and private entities, are making us homeless as much as any mental health or job loss issues,
    2. We don’t want to be homeless and have worked hard not to be,
    3.The homeless are left with no choice but to associate with criminals; because A. we are treated like criminals automatically just for being where we are, & B. no one else will listen to us when we need something, (that’s not to say there aren’t the well intended, who listen and try to help, but we need both those in official, and unofficial, positions to not only listen, but be more open minded in doing so.)
    4. Most of society doesn’t see us as human beings, but as stray feral animals, that need to be avoided for fear of being attacked. If that were true, there would be many more dead and injured people in the world today,
    5. Despite popular opinion, most homeless people are NOT criminals, drunks, and drug addicts, and many of those who are such, are trying to go on the straight and narrow, but keep on getting turned away from programs that would help us do so, (however many are addicts by choice),
    6. Far more of us work for a living to get by than most of society thinks, and aside from announcing ourselves as homeless you couldn’t pick us out of a crowd as such,
    7. We live in boxes, tents, trees, abandoned buildings, shipping containers, commercial trailers, campers & R.V.’s as well as most other alternative forms of shelter because we have no other place to be, because, and I QUOTE “We don’t want them in our backyard.”
    8. That’s ok with us because BELIEVE ME, we don’t want to be in your backyard any more than you want us to be, that’s why we live where we do as, stated above,
    9. Most of us don’t live in or go to homeless shelters unless we have to because we don’t like being around the drugs, crime, and fighting you hear about any more than you do,

    10. We are the ultimate recyclers and don’t appreciate the looks of scorn and disgust throw our way for scavenging and dumpster diving to find what others have thrown away unused, or repairable, that we can’t afford to buy, but need, (or want) as much as anyone else,
    11. We are NOT criminals just because we are homeless, and treating us as such when we aren’t, tends to force us into a position of feeling like we need to become one, as we are left no other choice to get along on a daily basis.
    12. Despite popular opinion, you CAN, and SHOULD, ask US what we need, to change our situation, and become MORE productive, FUNCTIONAL, members of society, because despite the well known mental health issues that some of us have, even the most mentally unbalanced of us know what we need to fix our problems, and most of us would do what needs to be done, if we felt we could trust others, who are in a position to help us, not to pull the rug out from under us, just as we’re getting on our feet, (Stop making it necessary to kill ourselves or commit crimes to get your attention.)
    13. I call on all city, county, and state, officials to stop “JUST doing their jobs.” and start looking for ways they can fill the spirit of the laws intended to keep ALL OF THEIR CITIZENS safe, and find ways to use or change, their current laws, or put in to force, new laws to allow them to use the honest, willing, homeless CONSTITUANT citizens to reduce crime and make their local communities safer for everyone, NOT JUST HOMEOWNERS AND RENTERS. STOP apologizing for what you can’t do and start doing what you can, using all your influence to push others to do what they can. The more trustworthy cooperation from those in authority we get, the more we’ll get done, and the faster it will go for everyone.
    14. Stop making it too expensive for us to go through the legal process needed, to make suggestions for changes to laws, or city ordinances, or to get permits to make the good things we do and the good ideas we have work, to fix the problems we are BOTH, trying to cure.
    (Author , Lawrence D. Horman)

    • Mr. Horman,

      First, I’d like to thank you and Mr. Weller and Mr. Ackerson for helping me better understand homelessness.

      But I’d like to know what steps you think should be taken to reduce or maybe even eliminate homelessness.

  5. I do not agree, Sarah. Have you seen the photos of Seattle and Portland lately? I just moved from Washington State and Seattle was shipping homeless to Bellingham, the city where I lived. The shelters and drop in center were in town and stabbings, etc. are now happening on a regular basis. These kinds of folks need mental health services and all the other things we refuse to provide.

    So we are supposed to let people set up tents on Monaco Parkway now? Don’t think this will help anyone.

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