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‘You’re Breaking the Law As Soon as You Stop Walking’: How Colorado Cities Criminalize Homelessness

“It’s illegal to stand still, it’s illegal to sit down, it’s illegal to lay down, it’s illegal to eat,” said Paul Boden, executive director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project. “You’re breaking the law as soon as you stop walking.”

A man walks past the Denver Rescue Mission homeless shelter.John Moore/Getty Images

When Benjamin Dunning was homeless on the streets of Denver, Colorado for four and a half years, his number one priority was trying to stay out of sight.

“My biggest job … was to find someplace to hide where I wouldn’t have contact with the police, wouldn’t have contact with a security guard, wouldn’t have contact with Parks and Rec,” he said. For a while he had a regular spot to sleep where he was left alone — only to have a newly hired security guard find him one night and tell him he couldn’t sleep there anymore.

But security guards are one thing and police are another. “You do risk going to jail,” said Dunning, who now works with Denver Homeless Out Loud, an advocacy group.

That’s because sleeping outside is one of many activities deemed illegal in parts of Colorado. The state’s 76 largest cities have collectively passed 351 ordinances that target the homeless, from bans on camping to sitting or lying down in public to simply sharing food outside. Advocates say that’s how cities in Colorado have, for the most part, opted to deal with their homeless populations: by passing and enforcing ordinances that criminalize basic acts of life and wasting resources that could otherwise be spent on services, making life even harder for those without homes.

It’s illegal to stand still, it’s illegal to sit down, it’s illegal to lay down, it’s illegal to eat. You’re breaking the law as soon as you stop walking.

Paul Boden Executive Director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project

If someone is cited, they first face a fine and a court date. But most homeless people can’t afford to pay a fine and can’t make it to court. It’s a “cycle of criminalization,” said Nantiya Ruan, who leads the Homeless Advocacy Policy Project at the University of Denver. “People get a citation, they can’t pay it, they get a warrant for their arrest … then they spend anywhere from two to three days in jail. Then they can’t get a job because they have a criminal background.”

The ordinances could, on their face, apply to anyone. But that’s not how they’re enforced. “A high, high percentage of people who have gotten tickets under these ordinances are homeless,” Ruan said. For example, most of downtown Boulder has a smoking ban that should impact anyone who lights up a cigarette, and yet the vast majority of people given citations for smoking between 2015 and 2017 were homeless, according to Ruan’s team, which researches laws that target the homeless. Similarly, over half of all the trespass citations Denver issued between 2013 and 2014 were for homeless residents, even though homeless people represent just 0.6 percent of the population.

“Cops are only going to enforce [ordinances] against those guys and those people who are ‘the problem,’” Boden said. “Homeless people are not the only motherfuckers sitting on a sidewalk, but we’re the only ones going to jail for it.”

Colorado’s cities appear to be particularly vigorous in their enforcement. Video from 2016 showed Denver police officers taking blankets from people in freezing November weather. And it’s only intensifying. Ruan, whose team has done public records requests in the state, has found that citations and “move along” orders are increasing.

That may be because the state’s homeless population is increasing, due to a lack of investment in public housing, coupled with skyrocketing home prices. There are just under 11,000 homeless people in Colorado, nearly 4,000 of whom have nowhere to sleep at night. That’s up from about 2,300 homeless people in 2008, 1,800 of whom had no shelter. Existing shelters usually don’t have enough capacity to give everyone a bed, plus many people can’t comply with all of the rules regarding who’s allowed in and where. As of 2016, Boulder had only 280 shelter beds for its 440 homeless people.

“Cities have not been able to effectively support their homeless communities,” Dunning said, “so [instead] they try to scare them off.”

Criminalizing people’s attempts to survive outside, however, only makes it harder for them to get indoors. Landlords “do rent checks in ways that filter people out if you’ve got any [criminal] history,” Dunning pointed out. “It raises the bar that much higher.” It also makes finding a job or even accessing public benefits — such as subsidized housing or, in some places, food stamps — nearly impossible.

Criminalizing homeless people can also make them less likely to take advantage of the services that might be available. “When you give police officers the power to ticket and arrest and put people in jail … they’re no longer seen as someone providing services,” Ruan pointed out. “That’s what disrupts [homeless people] getting services.”

But the state’s homeless population and their allies aren’t letting the situation stand. For four years in a row, advocates have pushed for what’s been dubbed the Right to Rest Act in the state legislature, which would give homeless people the right to move freely in public spaces, eat and accept food, occupy a vehicle, and protect their personal property.

Boden’s organization was behind the original bill and has been aggressively lobbying for its passage. “We want to frame it as a social justice and a human rights issue for people’s ability to live with full protections in the local community of their choice,” Boden said. “No local communities should be able to pass ordinances that criminalize the presence of people they don’t like.”

And yet Colorado lawmakers have been slow to sign on. The bill had a hearing this month in the Colorado House of Representatives, but it again failed to get enough support to move out of committee. Most Republicans voted against it; only one Republican has ever voted in favor of it in the four years it’s been considered, Boden said.

“Instead of acknowledging their dignity and right to respect,” noted Darren O’Connor, one of the students who works on the Homeless Advocacy Policy Project, “our legislature voted out of fear of allowing people to be in public space.”

But the math is on the advocates’ side. Ruan’s team found that just six Colorado cities spent at least $5 million enforcing these ordinances over five years. “Criminalization pushes people down at the same time they’re trying to lift people up with services … and that money could be spent in a better way,” Ruan said.

The group’s calculation doesn’t even take into account the health impacts of these laws, which further drain resources. The lack of sleep due to a constant worry of being rudely awakened and hassled by police — not to mention the actual experience of being kicked awake by an officer — can quickly run someone down. Coupled with a poor diet of cheap food handouts and the effects of sleeping in the cold, that stress takes a heavy toll on the body. “Your immune system begins to break down so you get more colds, or if you’re susceptible of being diabetic, you’ll go diabetic,” Dunning said.

Some consequences are even more severe. One homeless man in the state who was woken up by police and told to move along went into an alley and was struck and killed by a truck, according to advocates. Some women have reported being raped when they were forced to leave well-lit or patrolled areas.

Even though the Right to Rest Act didn’t pass this year, momentum is building. “When we first introduced it, it was just us and service providers,” Dunning recalled. But now faith groups, business groups, and even some in law enforcement have backed the bill. “It just keeps growing and growing, and at some point, these guys won’t be able to get away with not supporting it.”

Boden agrees and says poor and homeless people will keep fighting. “We figure no meaningful civil rights legislation is easy or this would have been done already,” he said. “We’ll just keep coming back with it. If you know in your heart you’re fucking right, it doesn’t matter how many times they say no. The last thing they’re going to say is yes.”