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.
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