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DENVER — Should homeless camps be allowed in public parks?
How about people living in RVs and cars parked outside your home?
It’s a question Denver voters will decide on in May with the Right to Survive Initiative on the ballot.
Denver's current urban camping ordinance bans tarps, sleeping bags and tents in public.
Initiative 300, otherwise known as the Right to Survive Initiative, would reverse the ban.
Homeless advocates say the ban is cruel and unusual and a relatively new phenomenon in cities across the country. Denver banned urban camping in 2012.
“And before that, we didn’t have a mass havoc of anarchy across our city,” said Terese Howard, spokeswoman for Denver Homeless Out Loud. “It violates the 8th Amendment.”
But, camping ban supporters say allowing people to sleep in public is unsafe and unhealthy.
“Keep in mind the ban started as a result of Occupy Denver. So, it was a problem,” said Alvina Vasquez, communications director for No on 300, a coalition against a reversal of the ban. “And this ballot initiative doesn’t really solve the issue of homelessness. It doesn’t provide any funding or taxes or resources.”
Homeless individuals say they have a right to survive.
“The city just continues to keep its foot on the neck of poor people,” said Jerry Burton, a former U.S. Marine who has been homeless on and off for a few years now. “You can have a tent city or something like that and end this crisis.”
While many cities still allow urban camping, Initiative 300 would be a first-of-its-kind ban reversal.
“This is actually the first time in the nation that an initiative to decriminalize homelessness has been put on the ballot for people to vote on,” Howard said.
The group No on 300 says reversing the ban would also allow camping in right of ways between the sidewalks and curbs in any neighborhood.
"It pretty much says anyone can camp anywhere for as long as they'd like," Vasquez said. “So, technically – the person who’s camping in front of your home could claim they’re being harassed which turns into cycles and cycles of litigation.”
“That’s wrong,” she said. “That’s not what this initiative says. It is specifically for spaces that are accessible to the public and that means if any space is closed, it’s not accessible. We will still honor park curfews and any other public space rules.”
Julio Alvars says he's witnessed the problem of urban camping, first-hand.
"It was one tent and now it's seven," Alvars said of an encampment outside his apartment complex. “The problem is – first of all, they don’t have a bathroom.”
According to statistics from the Denver Police Department, the urban camping ban is enforced, but violators are seldom ticketed.
In 2016, for example, police made more than 5,000 contacts for urban camping, but only wrote nine tickets. In 2017, police made 4,600 contacts but wrote only five tickets.
“However, the city knows that they don't need to ticket and arrest people in order to do what they're trying to do - which is push people out of sight, out of mind," Howard said.
Scott Frank is a property and business owner in Denver’s Curtis Park neighborhood. He says this is an ethical and moral issue that extends well beyond camping.
"The larger issue, as we all know, is about affordable housing and mental health," Frank said. "It's freezing out here today and it's affecting people's lives. We’re not taking the right steps to solve the problem.”
Burton says the city is failing on homelessness, including city council and the mayor.
“We are going to sweep the council this May,” Burton said. “We’re going to get as many people out as we possibly can. The mayor hasn’t cared about homelessness until now, until his last election because of term limits.”
Howard said Initiative 300 is only the start. Her group is hoping the state of Colorado will pass a bill decriminalizing urban camping next year.
“Our goal is to decriminalize homelessness across the entire nation,” Howard said.
Vasquez says legalizing camping is not the answer.
“On freezing days like this, saying you can sleep outside for as long as you want is not compassionate or safe or healthy,” Vasquez said. “I congratulate the proponents for bringing this up, but Initiative 300 is not the answer.”