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Homeless Advocates Fight for the Right to Rest in Denver

Activists are pushing for a “right to rest” law in Colorado that would prevent the criminalization of homelessness.

Tiny homes constructed by Denver Homeless Out Loud for those experiencing homelessness in Denver, Colorado. (Photo: Alais Clay)

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Homelessness in Denver has grown 600 percent in the last 20 years, while the amount of emergency shelter beds has been stagnant. In October 2015, Denver Homeless Out Loud (DHOL) occupied space at Sustainability Park and, financed through online donations, began constructing tiny homes for those experiencing homelessness. The group named the site Resurrection Village, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign, which culminated in 1968 after King was assassinated. The historic campaign confronted economic inequality in the United States as demonstrators built tents outside the Capitol in Washington, DC, deeming the encampment “Resurrection City.”

Homeless advocate Coby Wikselaar participated in the construction of the tiny homes. “I feel tied to those people in need, and the work being done in Denver is very powerful and shows how damaging these values of private property are to society,” she told Truthout. “Community is at the heart of all struggles.”

Marcus Hyde of DHOL explained that the group has been seeking to start a tiny homes project similar to Dignity Village in Portland and Opportunity Village in Eugene. Hyde told Truthout that DHOL held five community forums with people experiencing homelessness, and that the major request was for housing. “Tiny homes are cheaper, more dignified and promote a self-governed model,” Hyde said. “Our major concepts for Resurrection Village are community, choices, democracy and sustainability.”

Hyde spoke about DHOL’s attempts to work with the city, explaining that the group’s main problem was that it didn’t have property. Hope VI is a federal program that takes old housing projects, tears them down and redevelops them into mixed-income developments.

“Unfortunately, low-income housing was torn down and rarely replaced,” Hyde said. “Federal housing budgets were decreased in the 1980s and the Denver Housing Authority (DHA) is strapped for cash, but has vacant land.” Hyde explained that the DHA showed interest in working with DHOL, but then stopped communicating with them, which led to the group’s civil disobedience action.

The Rise and Eviction of Resurrection Village

On the eve of October 24, 2015, an estimated 70 police officers, a police helicopter and SWAT units descended on Resurrection Village, arresting 10 community members for trespassing, according to documents received by Truthout from an open records request. Wikselaar, who was one of the activists arrested, said that during the raid, members of DHOL gathered in one of the tiny homes. “There were all types of emotions … we were seeking to build a different way to relate to each other … these are huge questions we need to delve into.” Explaining their action as an act of civil disobedience, Wikselaar said, “When people break the law, there is probably a great reason.”

The DHA reported the community members to the Denver Police Department for trespassing. The DHA declined to comment, stating that the agency has no opinion on Resurrection Village. DHOL reported that “Denver Public Works [waste management] destroyed, threw into dump trucks, and carted away the homes that [are] so badly needed by houseless people.”

DHOL and supporters had constructed five tiny homes before the police arrived. The largest home was named the Mesa House, which was created by Mesa Middle School students. “After [Denver Public Works] took our houses away in dump trucks, they gave us two hours to get our houses back and they were in pieces,” Hyde said. “The police watched us and told us we weren’t allowed to take pictures or document. We had to sign an affidavit to DHA saying we wouldn’t sue. We lost $1,000 of building materials and tools. Personal belongings were left in the Mesa House as well.”

Resurrection Village Rises Again: Move Along to Where?

On November 10, 2015, people came together again at Resurrection Village and assembled 12 tents and one tiny home, which was on a trailer parked on the street. After receiving a threat of eviction on December 2, 2015, DHOL was assured a two-and-a-half-week eviction delay by TreeHouse Brokerage and Development and District 9 Councilman Albus Brooks. Despite these promises, police came to Resurrection Village the next night, informing the residents that they could not be in tents and could only use their clothes as shelter. DHOL reported that Brooks has agreed to help the organization find permanent land for tiny homes. Brooks and TreeHouse Brokerage and Development declined to comment.

On December 12, 2015, Resurrection Village moved the encampment to another vacant plot. DHOL stated, “All over the city there is public land – land on which in many cases there used to be affordable housing – land which now sits vacant or is being sold to private developers. We have a responsibility to use this public land to meet the public need!”

The new Resurrection Village was swept by police on December 14, 2015, due to trash and obstruction, according to the Denver Police. DHOL acknowledged the complaint of trash and asked, “But does that give police the right to make everyone leave, tell them if they return they will be arrested, and throw away people’s survival gear in the middle of winter?”

The following night, Denver Police told more than 100 people without homes in Denver’s District 6 neighborhood that they had to move along. According to DHOL, “One woman who was victim of this sweep said the cops told her she could grab one bag and everything else she owns would be thrown away. She grabbed all she could as quickly as she could but police threw away the rest of her belongings – mostly survival gear such as blankets and tarps.”

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and the Denver Police justify their sweeps by explaining that everyone will be offered a shelter. An Urban Camping Ban ordinance states that people found “camping” will be connected with a human services outreach worker. However, a survey of people living without homes in Colorado found that 73 percent of people have been turned away from a shelter due to lack of space, and another report found that only 4 percent of respondents said the police contacted an outreach worker to help them. In addition, there are an estimated 3,456 homeless people on the streets of Denver in a given night, while there are only 1,500 emergency shelter beds.

The homeless population and homeless advocates suffered a major loss in January 2016 when the Denver Catholic Worker House caught fire. All 12 residents survived, and one person was hospitalized for smoke inhalation. Established in 1978, all volunteers are unpaid and live in voluntary poverty with people experiencing homelessness. The house was the only shelter in Denver that didn’t separate houseless couples based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Nestled in the middle of hungry developers, the house has served as a symbol of fighting gentrification in the Five Points neighborhood of Denver and has been a strong advocate for homeless people. The organization is currently seeking donations and finding ways to reopen.

A Brief History of the Urban Camping Ban in Denver

In 2012, the Denver City Council passed an ordinance prohibiting “unauthorized camping on public or private property” – better known as the Urban Camping Ban – with a 9-4 vote. Violations of the camping ban can involve a $999 fine and a year in jail. The ordinance was an attack on public space and seen as a deliberate way to criminalize people experiencing homelessness by defining illegal use of shelter as “… sleeping bag, bedroll, blankets, or any form of cover or protection from the elements other than clothing.”

In 2000, before the camping ban was passed, former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb sought to make it illegal to sit or lie down within 200 square miles of 16th Street Mall. Webb explained that “aggressive panhandling, public intoxication, overflowing trash bins, and verbal and physical intimidation,” by homeless individuals were “serious problems,” according to The Denver Post. While petitioning for the 2000 sidewalk ban, the former president of the Downtown Denver Partnership, Anne Warhover, said that visitors “don’t feel so safe” and “panhandling makes them cringe.”

Fast forward to 2012, when officials were lobbying for the passing of the camping ordinance and lead sponsor Councilman Albus Brooks said he counted too many people downtown: “This is a nightmare … I am compassionate, but I also understand that sometimes people need to be dealt with … I would hope we could do something strong enough to prevent individuals from laying out in front of people’s businesses and prevent this tent city that has the opportunity to become a violent city.”

The other lead sponsor of the ban was Councilwoman Tamara Door, now president of the Downtown Denver Partnership, who stated during legislative hearings, “It’s impacting businesses and the perception of our communities when we have mass camping in our center city.” Denver Councilman Charlie Brown pitted people experiencing homelessness against women and children, stating, “We have to stand up for our businesses downtown and our women and children who are afraid to go downtown. Are we supposed to just give in?” (It’s important to note that 42 percent of homeless people are women and 64 percent are people in families with children in metro Denver.)

With the passing of the Urban Camping Ban, current Denver Mayor Michael Hancock joined the unconstitutional ranks of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. In 1999, Giuliani declared that people experiencing homelessness had “no right to sleep on the streets.” In addition, Giuliani’s police commissioner stated that the homeless could be arrested if they “refused shelter.”

According to the US Interagency Council on Homelessness, anti-homeless legislation has been found to violate the First, Fourth and Eighth Amendments of the US Constitution. In addition to being criticized by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the United Nations, the Department of Justice (DOJ) ruled in 2015 that criminalizing homelessness and making it illegal to sleep outside is “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Don Mitchell, professor of geography at Syracuse University, put these laws into perspective, stating in The Right to the City that “The anti-homeless laws being passed in city after city in the United States work in a pernicious way: by redefining what is acceptable behavior in public space, by in effect annihilating the spaces in which homeless people must live, these laws seek simply to annihilate homeless people themselves …”

The Right to Rest

In an effort to combat the Urban Camping Ban ordinance and to enact a Homeless Bill of Rights, DHOL, in collaboration with the Western Regional Advocacy Project, held the “Right 2 Rest Fest” in front of the Colorado State Capitol building on January 25, 2016. Donated clothing was given to people experiencing homelessness at the event, as well as free food, coffee and music from many musicians, including folk singer Laura Goldhamer. The event was organized to promote the Colorado Right to Rest Act House Bill 1191, sponsored by Representatives Joseph Salazar and Jovan Melton. “It is a right that no one should be denied,” Melton said. “No city should push their people out and no one should be criminalized for or discriminated against for the circumstances that they face. We will continue to stand with you.”

Nathan Woodliff-Stanley from the ACLU of Colorado endorsed the Right to Rest Act, stating at the festival:

It is time to stop criminalizing homelessness; it’s time to stop making it illegal to do the things that any person would have to do if you’re unhoused to survive, and it’s time to actually address housing issues rather than trying to think that it somehow solves a problem to say “go away, go somewhere else, move along.” As you know, it begs the question, move along to where? No one ever answers that question.

As a snow storm rolled in, a woman experiencing homelessness spoke about the hardships of being houseless:

I’m not out here because I choose to be. I don’t have a place, and because I don’t have a place is why I’m out here. It is really cold, and it was really cold last night, and I don’t want to be here … if I could get a job, I would, but I am so tired. I just want to sleep.

Roshan Bliss from Black Lives Matter 5280 spoke at the event, connecting the issues of Black Lives Matter and homelessness:

I want to say that Black Lives Matter as a struggle has a deep-rooted connection with the struggle of the poor. So much of Black people’s marginalization is compounded by the fact that Black folks are often from poor communities and so many homeless people are Black. We know for a fact that a huge part of why Michael Marshall is dead, a huge part of why Marvin Booker is dead, is because those men were homeless and they didn’t have anywhere to rest … their ability to take care of themselves without a house in this city was criminalized.

The Colorado Right to Rest Act will be heard by the Local Government Committee on February 24, 2016. Similar bills are also being introduced in California and Oregon. A DHOL press release summarized the bill’s seven pages:

[The act] prohibits the enactment or enforcement of laws that criminalize resting and seeking nourishment in public spaces. It gives every person the right to sleep, sit, lay, cover oneself from the elements, sleep in your vehicle, share food, and have privacy of your belongings. In essence, it gives us the right to survive.

A new report by the University of Denver titled “Too High a Price: What Criminalizing Homelessness Costs Colorado” found that Denver spent more than $750,000 enforcing anti-homeless ordinances in 2014. The report also found that $5 million was spent enforcing anti-homeless legislation in the state over a five-year period. Despite Colorado’s controversial and unconstitutional laws that target the homeless, advocates are confident that either through civil disobedience or legislation, their voices will be heard.

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