“The Cost of Criminalizing Homelessness Just Went Up By $1.9 Billion, HUD Funding Requirement Building on Department of Justice Enforcement” reads the press release of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP). (http://www.nlchp.org/press_releases/2015.09.18_HUD_NOFA_criminalization)
The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is the second federal agency to put its clout behind the decriminalization of homelessness within the last month. In doing so, they overrule the opinions of local politicians, including Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and Denver Councilman Albus Brooks, and their agents in Denver’s Road Home, who deny that criminalizing sleeping through unauthorized camping bans and quality of life policing violates constitutional rights. Denver’s illegal and discriminatory policies could cost the metro area over $20 Million in HUDdollars. (https://www.hudexchange.info/resource/reportmanagement/published/CoC_AwardComp_CoC_CO-503-2014_CO_2014.pdf)
“This is about compassion,” said Councilman Brooks as he introduced the Unauthorized Camping Ban to Denver City Council in 2012. At that time Denver already had a shortage of thousands of low-income housing units and a shelter system capable of housing just 7% of the city’s homeless residents. Three years later, Denver has not substantially increased its low income housing stock or homeless services, rents have risen astronomically, and police harassment continues to be a daily reality for Denver’s unhoused community. In a 2014 NLCHP study of 187 major U.S. cities, Denver was one of only 26% that have sleeping bans so harsh as to outlaw sleeping on all public property. (http://www.nlchp.org/documents/No_Safe_Place) And in a 2015 Denver Homeless Out Loud (DHOL) survey of over 500 houseless residents, 70% reported being harassed, cited or arrested for sleeping in public. (http://issuu.com/denverhomelessoutloud/docs/report-final/4?e=7722969/12234987)
By requiring local “Continuum of Care” consortiums vying for a share of the $1.9 billion in homelessness assistance funding to explain how their communities are combatting the criminalization of homelessness, HUD went on record with its opposition to this shameful and counterproductive national trend.(http://nationalhomeless.org/hud-puts-teeth-into-effort-to-stop-criminalizing-homeless-people/) This action follows the US Department of Justice’s (DOJ)August 6th statement in a Boise, ID court case that camping bans violate the 8th Amendment’s prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishment.” (http://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/justice-department-files-brief-address-criminalization-homelessness)
HUD‘s new funding application guidelines will hit communities that discriminate against homeless people squarely in the pocketbook. Communities stand to lose up to two rating points if they cannot demonstrate that they have “implemented specific strategies that prevent criminalization of homelessness.” As the NLCHP stated in its press release on the HUD move (cited above), “In the extremely competitive funding process, Continuums’ ability to fully respond to this question…could be the difference between receiving funding and not.”
In response, the city of Vancouver, Washington has already repealed its camping ban, leading the charge to remove illegal bans from the books. To some of the business leaders who opposed the change, Mayor Tim Leavitt admitted, “We have to do this because we’re not going to win taking on the Supreme Court.”(http://www.columbian.com/news/2015/sep/14/vancouver-oks-overnight-camping-in-public-places/) And closer to home, Colorado Springs City Council President Pro Tem Jill Gaebler said in supporting a move to delay a vote on a proposed sit-lie ordinance, “…I think we should take the time to review whatever HUD is proposing so we don’t lose those funds.” (http://gazette.com/proposed-sit-lie-law-now-following-idea-of-lone-opponent-on-colorado-springs-city-council/article/1559991.)
Will these recent federal actions lead Denver to change its policies to restore basic human rights and focus on “homes not handcuffs”? For nearly three years, DHOL has urged our city council to repeal the Denver Camping Ban and other “quality of life” crimes, invest in affordable and low-income housing, and work to repair our city’s reputation as the place that punishes the poor for their poverty. We presented the Council with statistically relevant reports concerning the negative effects of the camping ban (http://issuu.com/denverhomelessoutloud/docs/surveyreport), as well as the U.S. Inter-Agency Council on Homelessness (USICH) manual entitled, “Searching Out Solutions: Constructive Alternatives to the Criminalization of Homelessness.” (http://usich.gov/resources/uploads/asset_library/RPT_SoS_March2012.pdf)
Countless social workers, homeless service providers and advocates, the USICH, the ACLU, and even the United Nations (http://www.nlchp.org/INT_CCPR_COC_USA_16838_E.pdf) have also argued that criminalizing necessary acts of survival–such as sleeping and resting–is not only cruel, but also costly to taxpayers and ineffective at curbing homelessness. Yet our city council has consistently ignored all of us, refusing to consider modifying or repealing any of these harmful laws and policies.
Last year, House Representative Joe Salazar ran the “Right to Rest Act” bill. This bill, written by Western Regional Advocacy Project together with Denver Homeless Out Loud, would have banned local municipalities from passing unconstitutional ordinances against poor and homeless people, and overturned the current laws in place. Before the law was voted down in committee, the City of Denver lobbied heavily against it through Director of Denver’s Crime Prevention and Control Commission representative Regina Huerter, who argued, “…So I think there’s a bit of a semantics in there about criminalizing homelessness, because I do not believe that we are criminalizing homelessness….”
Well, Ms. Huerter, the Department of Justice and HUD beg to differ.
Unless Denver’s leaders change their ways, they will have no answer to HUD‘s questions, and will put the housing and services of both current and future beneficiaries of HUD funding in jeopardy. We invite our current city council, the mayor and Denver’s Road Home to work together with people experiencing homelessness to overturn these mean spirited and discriminatory laws and advocate for “The Right to Rest Act” in 2016. This bill would protect people’s rights to rest without fear of harassment, help redirect scarce resources toward real solutions to homelessness–and protect our federal funding for homeless assistance services and housing.