Anti-Homeless Laws ‘Criminalize’ Poverty, says Colorado Study

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On an average night, more than 5,000 individuals are homeless in Denver. Photo by Denver Homeless Out Loud courtesy Homeless Advocacy Policy Project, University of Denver.

Colorado has stepped up measures to force homeless individuals off the streets, even though many police and municipal authorities concede such measures do little to address the poverty and high housing costs that fuel the state’s homelessness “crisis,” according to a study by the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.

“Despite some city officials acknowledging that issuing citations does nothing to solve the homeless crisis, our research reveals that city actors continue to criminalize homelessness,” the study said.

The study, a follow-up to a 2016 report by the same research group that detailed the rising cost to Colorado taxpayers of anti-homeless measures, found that the state’s three major cities—Denver, Boulder and Colorado Springs—had experienced a “stark rise in enforcement of anti-homeless laws, and [in] the disproportionate and inhumane impact they have on the day-to-day lives of people experiencing homelessness.”

The three cities now have at least 37 ordinances that target behavior considered a direct consequence of poverty and the rising cost of housing, said the authors of the study, published this month as part of the university’s Homeless Advocacy Policy Project.

The ordinances are effectively enforced by “move-on” orders issued by police for individuals who are camping, sitting, or loitering in public property.

“At first glance, these move-on orders may seem like a viable alternative to outright issuing citations,” the study said. “However, with the extreme decline in affordable housing and the lack of emergency shelter space to accommodate Colorado’s growing homeless population, these move-on orders leave homeless people with nowhere to go.

“Instead, they are merely pushed from one place to the next.”

In Boulder, for example, the lack of adequate shelter beds to house the homeless population traps individuals told to “move on” in a cycle that inevitably leaves them vulnerable to arrest for violating the expanding number of anti-homelessness municipal ordinances.

Boulder now spends about $1.8 million per year in the enforcement of anti-homeless ordinances alone.

The practice has accelerated despite objections from local enforcement.

“I don’t believe any community can enforce their way out of homelessness,” the report quoted Boulder Police Chief Greg Testa as saying. “The police are often called to address illegal behavior, and giving a warning or writing a summons modifies behavior, but it doesn’t solve homelessness.”

The use of these “move-on” orders also gravely endangers homeless individuals—by forcing them into dangerous areas, threatening their health, and pushing them further away from resources that could help them, the study said.

“As homeless people are forced into the shadows, extremely harmful consequences usually follow,” said the study.

The authors noted that just 12 percent of a sample of police-targeted homeless individuals interviewed by the Homeless Advocacy Policy project reported they were advised where they could go for further help.

Cities have often pointed to public health concerns as a motivator for anti-homeless ordinances such as authorizing sweeps of homeless camps, barring citizens from occupying a highway median, or public urination.

But in Denver, like many cities, there are no 24-hour bathrooms, leaving the homeless with few options but to break the law.

Meanwhile, housing prices in all the three cities reviewed in the study have risen in recent years.

“Research shows a $100 increase in rent is associated with an increase in homelessness of between six and 32 percent,” the study said.

Researchers utilized Open Records Requests to access data on the enforcement of anti-homeless laws in the three cities.

The study, entitled “Too High A Price 2: Move On To Where?,” was led by professors Nantiya Ruan and Elie Zwiebel, who supervised a team of students working at the Homeless Advocacy Policy Project: Michael Bishop, Bridget Dupey, Nicole Jones, Ashley Kline, Joshua Mitson, and Darren O’Connor.

According to the study, there was a 539 percent increase in the number of individuals contacted through move on orders, also categorized as “street checks,“ from 2014 to 2017.

Researchers reported that on an average night, Denver’s metropolitan homeless population amounts to more than 5,000 people.

“Included in this total, 924 are unsheltered on any given night, and nearly 2,000 individuals may be housed in emergency shelters with the remaining individuals sheltered in transitional housing,” the study found.

Data collected from the Colorado Springs Police Department showed a marked increase in citations issued since 2016 relating to camping in public parks, and entering or remaining in public parks after hours. Enforcement of these two ordinances went from “31 citations in 2014, to 200 citations in 2017, which amounts to a staggering 545 percent overall increase,” said the study.

The study called for the repeal of municipal camping bans and similar ordinances, noting that such laws have been subject to constitutional challenges.

It also recommended keeping public bathrooms open night and day, and suggested that Colorado invest in a messaging campaign that instructs the public to respect the dignity of those experiencing homelessness.

“Residents of our communities that are un-housed remain members of our community,” the authors said.

“They are valuable citizens who have voices. Public service announcements aimed at inclusivity and dignity could go a long way toward combatting the shunning and discrimination that homeless citizens experience on a daily basis.”

The full report can be downloaded here.

This summary was prepared with files from TCR news intern John Ramsey. Readers’ comments are welcome.

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