We all need to sleep, to eat, to use the restroom. We all need protection from the elements and shelter. They’re all part of our survival. Totally necessary, non-negotiables.
But what if pursuing those things got you arrested?
That would be completely absurd, right? For those living on the street, though, it’s a reality.
The Urban Camping Ban makes it illegal for anyone to wrap themselves in a blanket or sleeping bag and could cost someone a year in jail or $999 fine. It’s illegal to sit – yes sit – on the 16th Street Mall. These along with other laws are specifically targeting homeless citizens.
In a recent survey by Denver Homeless Out Loud of over 500 Denver homeless individuals…
- 57% were approached by police for sleeping, lying down, or covering oneself in a public place.
- 83% were asked to “Move along” when approached for these reasons.
- 26% were given a citation or arrested at least once for sleeping, lying down, or covering oneself.
For these citizens, survival becomes illegal. Dignity is destroyed. You must hide your survival, risking a fine you can’t pay or a criminal record that’s just one more barrier between you and housing and occupation.
Move Along to Where?
Well, can’t they sleep in a shelter?
The available shelter beds on any given night in Denver can only sleep 10% of the homeless population. Add in the fact that shelters are not always able (or willing) to take in people with certain circumstances (families, couples, single males, single males with children, LGBT, pets, addictions, mental illness), but they’re also often noisy, don’t allow for privacy or autonomy and involve lotteries late in the evening just to see if they’ll be admitted. We certainly appreciate our shelter partners and their imperative work in the community, but it’s just never that simple.
So, where do we expect those on the street to move along to?
When shelter is not an option, people living on the street report choosing the areas they do because they’re dry, well lit, safer, or warmer. They’re simply trying to survive. Instead of reaching out with compassion, laws are created, complaints are made, and they’re pushed away to locations that are potentially more dangerous, further from the resources that help, and less accessible. Dignity is destroyed, opportunities lost, and hope forgotten.
So, What Do We Do?
It’s a good question. First, we start talking about it. CCN was there at the Right2Rest Festival and Executive Director Megan Vizina spoke on the steps of the Capitol and called the crowd to not just watch, but get informed and get involved.
Second, there are solutions that have shown to be effective in other cities. Denver Homeless Out Loud is leading the charge to bring the three below to CO.
CO Homeless Bill of Rights – Megan Vizina, Executive Director
As a longtime advocate for folks experiencing homelessness I have very often heard stories about how one can be penalized or even criminalized simply for being homeless. This happens in nearly every city in the United States and happens every minute of the day. But the exciting news is that there is a grassroots group working to change that here in Colorado. The Colorado Homeless Bill of Rights seeks to:
“Create bills that protect the following rights and prohibit the enforcement of any local laws that violate these rights:
- The right to move freely, rest, sleep and protect oneself from the elements in public spaces.
- The right to occupy a legally parked vehicle.
- The right to a reasonable expectation of privacy of your property in public space.
- The right to eat, share, accept, or give food in any public space in which having food is not prohibited.
- The right to 24-hour access to “hygiene facilities.”
As Colfax Community Network works to engage in more city and state level advocacy, we have begun by endorsing this Colorado Homeless Bill of Rights because of its relevancy to and potentially profound and positive impact on the client population with whom we work.
Urban Rest Stops – Tessa Carlson, Outreach & Resource Intern
For those living on the streets, going to the bathroom (a basic human function) presents a much bigger challenge than many people face in their day-to-day lives. It is no big secret that access to public restrooms is lacking if not nonexistent, but if it is illegal for someone to relieve themselves outside and the use of business’ restrooms is limited to customers only, what alternative do these individuals have? Clearly there is a disconnect between the laws that govern us and the public services that are offered to us.
At CCN, we believe that access to things like restrooms and showers should be available to everyone who needs it. We are trying to play a bigger role in advocating for this issue by supporting groups like Urban Rest Stops – a faction of Denver Homeless Out Loud. Their goal is to open up spaces around Denver with restrooms, showers, storage boxes, and laundry facilities. A program like this started by the Low Income Housing Institute in Seattle, Washington has proven to be very successful. Their facility is called “The Rest Stop”, and according to their website, since opening in the early 2000s, they have provided well over 700,000 showers, 300,000 loads of laundry, and 1 million restroom visits. Undoubtedly, a program like this in our community would have a tremendous impact on the lives of so many people.
Tiny Homes – Martha Anne Duenckel, Outreach Coordinator
Tiny home communities are popping up all over the country. States like Oregon, Washington, Massachusetts and Wisconsin are some of the leading states in this innovative new approach to dealing with the housing problems we are seeing across the country. A tiny home can be built for under $30,000 and it is usually built on a trailer. This is not the only version of a tiny home, however, there are many designs out there to use for already existing homes and conversions of box cars and other structures. It may not be the solution for all of those experiencing homelessness but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.
The economy, efficiency and significantly reduced carbon footprint of these personable little homes cannot be beat by any other currently, in my opinion. Their simple designs allow for even the most novice of builders to jump in there and get started. One of my favorite attributes of this concept is that the ordinary person without an architectural, engineering or construction degree can take ownership in the design, structural integrity and sweat used to build a home suited for the person receiving it; my second favorite attribute being their options for mobility.
With the amount of tax dollars being spent on criminalizing our community members experiencing homelessness the cities building these communities have realized that providing housing for its homeless population is actually a lot less expensive than criminalizing the folks who are on the streets.
Research shows that projects like these are only successful if that is what the community wants. I am both excited and interested to see how Colorado’s communities are going to respond, especially those experiencing homelessness. Colfax Community Network is striving to support the homeless population in Aurora and fully supports the Homeless Bill of Rights. Tiny houses could become a supportive program for bills such as this.
For Further Reading:
- Denver Camping Ban: A Report from the Street – Report by Denver Homeless Out Loud
- Get Loud – A newspaper giving homeless individuals a voice by Denver Homeless Out Loud Newspaper
- No Safe Place: The Criminalization of Homelessness in US Cities – Report by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty
- From Wrongs to Rights: The Case for Homeless Bill of Rights – Report by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty