DENVER — For years, the city of Denver has been looking at ways to address its homeless crisis, a crisis that has only grown in seriousness in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Last month, Mayor Michael Hancock outlined his strategy at a newly opened men’s shelter in the Park Hill neighborhood. Part of the plan includes acquiring more motels to help the unhoused.
While the city starts taking steps to move forward with that strategy, a ballot proposal aims to take a different approach.
The proposal, which was submitted by the chairman of the Denver Republican party, would require the city and county to enforce current camping ban laws for public property and prohibit camping on private property without the express consent of the landowner.
It also requires the city to perform enforcement actions within 72 hours of receiving a complaint.
Finally, it allows for the city to create up to four safe outdoor spaces for those experiencing homelessness to camp but it doesn't specify where they would be. Instead, Flicker says city council would be tasked with finding areas.
“This is a pragmatic solution. It seeks to do two things: one, provide humanitarian aid to the homeless or unhoused people and two, to hold the City and County of Denver accountable when dealing with this mushrooming homelessness epidemic,” Flicker said.
He says those spaces would be required to offer clean water, sanitation and safety lighting. Flicker believes the limit on the number of safe outdoor spaces will be manageable for the city and keep the encampments in check.
Others see the proposal very differently; Terese Howard, an organizer with Denver Homeless Out Loud, considers the proposal to be dangerous and harmful to a population that is already suffering from increased city sweeps.
“This initiative is set up to give private individuals the ability to be the police, the ability to decide when the laws should be enforced and who they should be enforced on,” Howard said.
She also disagrees with the language of the proposal and whether it would actually require the city to set up safe outdoor spaces. The way she interprets it, the ballot proposal wouldn’t mandate the creation of four outdoor spaces but imposes a cap that doesn’t currently exist.
She also thinks it’s unreasonable to try to cram all of Denver’s unhoused individuals into these camps.
“If we are imagining that the roughly 5 or 10,000 people who are on the streets of Denver right now are going to squeeze into four sanction spots, then we are out of our mind,” she said. “This is not the kind of history we want to see continued where an unwanted group of people is forced into a particular camping area.”
There are also legal concerns that Howard has with the ballot proposal. After a recent court settlement, the city must provide seven days posted notice before performing a sweep.
If the initiative makes it onto the ballot and passes, the city would be in a difficult position of enforcing an ordinance that directly goes against that court settlement or it could face lawsuits.
“The way this camping ban enforcement would play out is a very likely violation of our existing lawsuit settlement agreement with the city,” Howard said.
If the initiative passes, it could make for another long and expensive legal battle over how the city enforces a camping ban.
For now though, the ballot petition is moving forward. Flicker was able to gather more than 13,600 signatures in support of the initiative and turn them into the city. He only needed roughly 9,000 valid signatures for the proposal to make it onto the ballot.
Officials have 25 days to review and verify those signatures. Flicker is confident that if it does make it to the ballot, the proposal will pass.