The signs are everywhere. “No on 300.” In many Denver neighborhoods, they outnumber yard signs for city council candidates and mayoral hopefuls.
In a state where voters are regularly bombarded with campaigns for numbered ballot measures, I’ll admit, 300 — as well as the sign’s insipid message, “We can do better” — meant nothing to me.
Initiative 300 calls for people to be allowed to rest, eat, sleep or seek shelter outdoors in public spaces or legally parked motor vehicles. Denver Homeless Out Loud sponsored the measure, which is designed to reverse the camping ban enacted seven years ago by the Denver City Council.
In response, Together Denver has mobilized a group including several real estate developers to defeat it. The No on 300 organization has collected more than half a million dollars, 10 times as much as the proponents have raised so far.
The 30-year-old advocacy organization, the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, has declined to take a stand on the measure, and Cathy Alderman, vice president of the coalition, is clearly impatient with what has become a pretty nasty controversy.
“Our message is more nuanced. We have not endorsed either side,” she said, though Together Denver has attempted to use the organization’s statements to suggest the coalition is on its team.
“When the camping ban was passed in 2012, it was extremely divisive,” Alderman said. “It created an us-versus-them scenario.”
People experiencing homelessness were characterized not as human beings in distress, but as a public nuisance.
The business community was adamant. It did not want customers to see the evidence of homelessness — the smells, the garbage, the shopping carts, the desperation.
So, the camping ban took effect and it was left to the police to cite people caught sleeping in public places, to confiscate their belongings, to shuffle them along to, well, wherever.
Out of sight, out of mind.
Then, despite the growing needs, whatever feeble efforts the city made to address the underlying causes of the problem were utterly ineffective.
“Because the city administration has not committed the community to solving homelessness or made it a priority, there’s nothing for people to coalesce around,” Alderman explained.
“It’s people experiencing homelessness versus the business community and law enforcement, and our leaders in city government haven’t done anything to bring people together to be part of the solution.”
Us versus them.
So people continue to experience homelessness, except now it’s a crime.
The causes are no secret: stagnant wages and exorbitant rents, out-of-control health care costs that wipe out a family’s savings, a lack of access to mental health services and substance abuse treatment, inadequate support for battered women and their children, insufficient shelter capacity, a lack of adequate transitional housing, not enough voucher programs for families in crisis, few shelters that will accept pets.
Private sector investments have only exacerbated the problem. Glitzy, high-dollar apartments are being developed by the thousands all across the city, many of them in areas that used to offer modest rental units.
“Gentrification is happening everywhere,” Alderman said.
“Several months ago, there were 20,000 empty high-end luxury apartments in the city. Another 20,000 of them are coming on line in the next few months. We could house all the homeless people in Colorado just with the high-end vacancies in Denver alone.”
Like that’s going to happen….
Denver is not unique. San Francisco, San Diego, Portland and other cities are confronting serious problems resulting from exploding housing costs and meager public services. They are expediting the creation of safe alternatives to camping while they develop comprehensive programs to address the many factors that lead to homelessness.
So instead of taking sides on 300, the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless wants to seize the moment.
“We are saying it’s not OK to leave people outside on their own to survive. And it’s not OK to use fear tactics to try to enact policies to keep people off the streets. We all think we can do better,” Alderman said.
“We need to bring people to the table to come up with solutions.”
The us-versus-them scenario is a failure.
Whether you live in Polo Club, the Golden Triangle, a tiny house in RiNo or with your three kids in sleeping bags in the back seat of a car, there is no them.
It’s just us.
Diane Carman is a Denver communications consultant.