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“The Feds misread city camping bans”

August 18, 2015

The Feds misread city camping bans

By The Denver Post Editorial Board

POSTED:   08/16/2015

Will the U.S. Justice Department’s decision this month to oppose local ordinances that ban sleeping or camping in public places tip the scales against such laws?

We hope not. It’s not that we quarrel with the department’s basic premise as outlined in a “statement of interest” it filed in a case from Boise, Idaho, that landed in federal court. Yes, people have to sleep somewhere. And yes, cities should seek to accommodate those who literally have nowhere to rest.

But to argue, as the Justice Department and homeless activists often do, that enforcement of anti-camping ordinances amounts to criminalizing homelessness is misleading and glib. It overlooks real dilemmas that city officials would inevitably confront if they were barred from telling people, “Sorry, you can’t sleep there.” It trivializes the important interest that towns and cities have in keeping vital urban spaces from being transformed into the living quarters for hundreds of people.

And it ignores the fact that people seek to camp in parks and other public spaces for a variety of reasons — that a transient passing through town, for example, might have different options from a local homeless alcoholic.

Denver and Boulder — to cite two Colorado examples — didn’t pass their anti-camping ordinances because their officials sought to criminalize homelessness. Both provide a variety of services to the down and out, with Denver in particular making massive (and steadily increasing) efforts to address chronic homelessness.

In Denver’s case, the anti-camping ordinance was partly a reaction to Occupy Denver protests in 2011 that lingered for months, with sleeping bags and tents strewn along Broadway sidewalks and in Civic Center and Lincoln Park.

As Mayor Michael Hancock said at the time, “The moment we lose downtown as a place people want to go for entertainment, recreation or a place to live, we lose the heart of Denver.”

In the three years since the ordinance passed, Denver has issued just 15 anti-camping citations — and the police department itself asked that most be dismissed. Meanwhile, literally thousands of contacts between police and transients have resulted in referrals that offer the opportunity for assistance and shelter.

Not every city may be as careful or as caring as Denver, but that still doesn’t mean that anti-camping bans are a bad idea or that people should have the right to sleep wherever they like on public property. And that’s why the Boise case could be so important to the future health of cities.

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