Denver ballot issue could impact suburban communities

Cross Currents: A column by Bill Christopher
Posted 4/24/19

Normally, ballot issues, which are germane to only City and County of Denver voters, do not get much attention in the suburbs surrounding the core city. The attitude is more or less “let Denver …

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Denver ballot issue could impact suburban communities


Normally, ballot issues, which are germane to only City and County of Denver voters, do not get much attention in the suburbs surrounding the core city. The attitude is more or less “let Denver take care of its own situations and issues.”

However, the May 7 Denver election includes a potential bomb impacting suburban communities and governments: Initiative 300 has the potential to push Denver’s homelessness and make-shift tent-like camping on public places into a much bigger problem than it currently is in suburban communities.

Right to survive initiative has evolved

Known as the “Right to Survive” initiative, the proposition would remove the existing controversial ban on urban camping on public property within Denver city limits. The ban was adopted by the city council in 2012.

Currently, Denver’s law criminalizes such camping activities. If it passes, Initiative 300 would bolster protections for the city’s homeless population guaranteeing them the rights to sleep, rest, eat and share food in outdoor spaces.

The origin of this ballot issue was an initial “Right to Rest Act” draft which was proposed at the Colorado State Legislature but failed to get traction over a four-year period, ending in 2018. A Denver advocacy group, Denver Homeless Out Loud (DHOL), then took the legislative language and turned it into a citizen-led initiative applicable to Denver only.

Denver voters will decide

Last October, the DHOL group successfully gathered over 10,000 signatures which placed the initiative on the upcoming May 7 ballot along with the election of Denver’s mayor and all 13 city council members.

Early this year, organized opposition came out under the banner of “Together Denver.” They have Realtor groups, apartment associations, the Downtown Denver Partnership and other heavy hitters joining forces to defeat the ballot proposal. You may have recently seen their TV ads where homeless individuals speak against the ballot issue.

Initiative contains too many vague provisions

Besides banning camping on public land such as in public rights-of-way between the curb and sidewalk, parks, open spaces, alleys and open land adjacent to government buildings, there are other key provisions which cause uncertainty.

For example, the topic of park curfews comes into play. Does Initiative 300 language override existing park curfews? Another issue pertains to police officers and homeless-service providers being able to do their jobs given the ballot language about “harassing or terrorizing the homeless.” There are several differences in the legal interpretation of the “Right to Survive” text which present a “full employment act for attorneys.”

“Right to survive” is not the solution

I would submit that the thrust and intent of the “Right to Survive” proposal is not the way to resolve homelessness. In fact, it helps facilitate more homelessness.

Certainly, every individual has rights and perhaps Denver has not handled the situation in the best or most humane manner. However, resolving or at least reducing homelessness is not an easy or quick fix situation.

I hope that Initiative 300 is defeated by Denver voters. However, I do believe that the “Right to Survive” will have been a clarion call for Denver officials and all appropriate government, business and non-profit organizations to come together in a serious manner to further work on a comprehensive multi-faceted strategy to begin reducing homelessness.

No “silver bullet” solution

Homelessness is not a new problem confronting core cities such as Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Boston and Denver. However, it has been a steady growing issue over many years and has penetrated suburban communities, but to a much smaller degree.

There is no silver bullet solution to eliminating homelessness. At best, it is a combination of strategies all working toward a common goal of at least reducing the number of people living on the streets, under bridges, along creeks, in their cars etc.

Just as the saying goes, “It takes a village to raise a child” I would submit that it takes a village (or community) to gradually solve homelessness.

Various influences cause homelessness

First, society needs to realize that it is not a one size fits all problem. There are several influencing factors as far as why people are homeless.

First, there are those who are without housing because of economic factors like losing their job(s) or not having the training or skill set to get a job.

Secondly, it can be caused by mental issues like we see with some military veterans. Next, it can be caused by drug addiction.

Finally, there are those who prefer the freedom of the outdoors and not being pinned down indoors. So, the problem has to be tackled from various perspectives on a concurrent and coordinated basis.

Affordable housing opportunities are a critical solution. Fortunately, we are seeing the market and governmental units respond with more dwelling units to rent in the 30 percent-60 percent of Area Median Income (AMI) range. The State Legislature is considering authorization of local governments to impose rent controls which I have doubts about.

Additional keys to a successful approach

Mental health services and facilities are paramount to addressing another component of homelessness. Such providers including hospitals need more resources to cope with the growing problem and to be able to take needed services to the individuals in their environment.

Drug addict homeless people need more detox facilities and medical services. Putting “street people” in jail is not the solution. Job training and increased job opportunities are another piece of the puzzle to help those who want to help themselves. Basic education is another factor that may be applicable with some people. Self-sufficiency is the key to unlocking success in a person’s life regardless of age or status in life.

The long journey is well worth the effort

It’s a long uneven road to travel, but the journey is well worth it. Many with various talents and benefits to offer are needed to move the needle on homelessness. Approving the option to allow homeless people to live in tent campgrounds on public places and spaces is not the solution.

Bill Christopher is a former Westminster city manager and RTD board member. His opinions are not necessarily those of Colorado Community Media.


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