Colin McCallin May 6, 2016

Earlier this year, Denver began to enforce its ban on urban public camping. This began with mass sweeps of the homeless camping sites near the shelter downtown and has continued with other group camping locations. The idea behind the sweep was to clean up the streets and encourage the homeless into shelters. However, there was no place to move homeless people to if they do not feel safe or supported in the shelters and the sweeps have become a way to move the homeless out of sight, but not necessarily toward an improved situation.

Are These Sweeps Legal?

The city council banned outdoor camping in 2012, so enforcing the urban camping ban is legal. However, the way it is done has yielded questionable results.

The sweeps involve cleaning up the site, forcing individuals to leave the camp, and taking any things they cannot carry with them. Some of those things are trashed, others are held in police storage for 30 days. And regaining property from police storage and dealing with the citations that may be issued by police for urban camping create additional burdens for a group of people that is already struggling. The ACLU has also expressed concern that seizing personal property without due process of law may violate the Fourth Amendment.

Chronic homelessness affects people from all walks of life, including families and children. The causes are wide and varied: long-term disabilities, illness, addiction, abuse, expensive and competitive housing markets or struggles to find and maintain employment. Homelessness does not look the same for all individuals either, many homeless people still work and go to school, but struggle with issues that keep them from obtaining stable housing.

What Alternatives are Offered?

The city hopes the homeless move into shelters but there have always been numerous reasons for some to shun these places.  These reasons include fears of being mistreated or abused, or concerns that possessions will be stolen.  And the fact is that even if every homeless person did go to a shelter there would neither be enough space nor resources to support them. Many have been turned away. Denver has not adequately increased services to address these issues.

In order to counter the camping ban and help find better ways to address the issue the Colorado Right to Rest Act (H.B. 1191) was proposed by Representatives Joseph Salazar and Jovan Melton in February. This bill would make it legal to rest in public places. But this bill did not pass committee. However, advocates continue to work for better answers to the sweeps.

Are There Any Solutions Out There?

Homelessness is an issue in every state; however, in Utah a startling approach has reduced the number of chronically homeless people significantly. In fact Utah has a homelessness rate of effectively zero, and they no longer track their homeless individuals by number, but by name. How did they do it? Utah flew in the face of conventional wisdom and chose the obvious; they gave chronically homeless people homes. And if individuals required further treatment for other issues, like illness or addiction, they received that too. It seems simplistic and even unrealistic, however it has worked.

The program in Utah first identifies those who are chronically homeless, meaning homeless for more than a year or several times over several years. The chronically homeless have statistically been the hardest to support and reintegrate. Then they get them into housing units that have been built or repurposed for this use. It may be a group living situation or a small house or apartment. There is a placement process and people who struggle living with others may have to wait longer for a better situation. But despite the logistics, over time, those who qualify for this help do get placed.

And the cost effectiveness of this approach is substantial.  On average the state saves about $8000 per homeless individual per year. Previously between jail, treatment and shelters, the average spending on a chronically homeless individual was about $20,000. Over the course of the last decade, Utah has saved millions.

In 2014, Denver spent $750,000 enforcing anti-homeless rules. And over a five year period Colorado has spent $5 million enforcing such legislation.

By virtue of thinking pragmatically and not viewing poverty as a crime, Utah has been able to develop an out of the box approach that appears to be working well and saving money. Perhaps as an alternative to sweeps or questionable seizures, it’s time to explore solutions that don’t treat people and their few possessions as disposable.