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Wilson: Denver’s homelessness policies reveal civic cruelty beneath shiny facade

It’s embarrassing, Denver. Our clean streets and microbreweries come at a price. Go to the right places in this town, and our civic dysfunction glares at you from beneath blankets and makeshift tents.  

What is the point of our progressive reputation when our “progress” leaves countless unhoused neighbors visibly stranded in our rising economic tide?

Walking through Civic Center park on a bright Saturday afternoon, I want to call the democratic experiment a failure.

Theo Wilson

What I see is so ironic. Tent after tent, blanket after blanket stretched out over the grass while people who haven’t had a warm place to sleep squabble among themselves beneath our pristine Rockies and skyscrapers. The contrast is sickening. We can do better. We have to.  

To a certain extent, this homelessness epidemic is a national blight. The simple fact is that things are getting more expensive, and consumers are feeling it, starting from the bottom earners up.  

Housing itself is where some of the biggest shocks in the economy can be felt. Consider that when I was born in 1981, the average home cost was around $47,200. Twenty short years later it was $119,600 in the year 2000.

Now, In Denver, the average home price is $409,900.  Consider that since the year 2000, the average American wage has only increased from $59,938 to $63,178.  That mere $13,000 increase cannot handle that $300,000 housing price gap.

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But what other cities have not done is this Urban Camping Ban. And though Denver voted down Ordinance 300, a proposed answer to the Camping Ban, there is no end in sight to the homelessness issue as policy currently stands. It’s interesting that Ordinance 300 was also named “The Right to Survive.” 

That’s exactly what people are going to do, regardless. The bodies strewn about the streets under blankets and tents are stark evidence that merely outlawing something is not going to make it go away.

The forces that propel human beings into the streets to freeze to death at night are greater than what can be deterred by the threat of police contact. 

I find it interesting that Denver Mayor Hancock was quoted by Colorado Politics as saying, “We don’t want this to become the next Los Angeles, which probably has a multimillion-dollar clean up.” 

But unlike Los Angeles, our homelessness epidemic is still manageable enough to try unconventional solutions. The primary issue is that Denver does not have enough beds to house the unhoused in shelters, but it hasn’t really put forth the civic effort to house them.  

How dare Denver make it illegal to live on the streets when it cannot house them? Denver Homeless Outloud published a study called “Unhealthy By Design,” which blows gaping holes in the city’s claims that it is doing all it can do to house the unhoused. 

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The report is damning, documenting everything from the number of times police wake up the homeless, to reports of literally having survival gear taken by the police.  

Denver has taken some strides to address the homelessness issue, like the $2.4 million it invested in the housing first model via Social Impact Bond, or the Day Center in Aurora funded by marijuana money. But the policing of the homeless via the Camping Ban kind of takes all the good, and turns it to a pernicious kind of back-handed evil. 

For all intents and purposes, winter is here. Surviving is still illegal on our sidewalks and streets. And until there are some measures in place for widespread affordable housing, meaningful minimum wage increases, and adequate beds for the unhoused, we need to be pissed enough to call a sham a sham.  

I won’t sit quiet while our unhoused neighbors are dying and being accosted by the police, and neither should you. Denver, you’re getting too big for your financial britches.

Keep your shiny new developments and e-scooters. You put on a good show for the out-of-town guests … but I just don’t believe you.  


Theo Wilson is a poet, speaker, activist and CNN contributor. Learn more about him at TheoWilson.net.


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