An unhoused Denver resident named Sara, left, borrows a cart from her neighbor Marcio Johnson, 43, as Sara packs up her belongings to move from an encampment along the 1300 block of Pearl Street in Denver on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

By Patty Nieberg, The Associated Press/Report for America

A Denver ballot initiative that would have allowed residents to sue the city for a slow response to homeless encampment clean-ups has been amended in a court ruling just days before voters head to the polls and thousands have already cast their mail ballots.

The proposed measure — Initiated Ordinance 303 — originally allowed citizens to sue the city if officials don’t clean up an encampment within 72 hours of a complaint. In early October, the Denver City Council opposed the initiative, saying it “directly contradicts” the seven-day notice city officials must give before sweeping most homeless encampments, an order handed down by a federal judge in January.

The measure was amended after a judge ruled Sunday that the time limit was unlawful and should be removed. However, it still asks voters to decide on creating up to four city-funded authorized camping locations on public property with required running water, restrooms and lighting. Local homelessness advocates say four sanctioned sites still isn’t enough to address the scale of the problem.

Ballots submitted before Tuesday will be counted with the original language of the measure. But even if it passes, the part that would have allowed residents to sue the city for a slow response to homeless encampment clean-ups won’t be enforced, said Jacqlin Davis, a spokesperson for the City Attorney’s Office.

City officials say over the last few months they have received an uptick in the number of complaints and requests to clean up local homeless encampments in residential neighborhoods. Cathy Alderman, chief communications and public policy officer for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, said there are more homeless people in Denver today than there ever has been.

The city has put millions of dollars into programs, outreach teams and housing projects to help solve the issue. But hundreds still remain on the streets — many in unsanctioned camping sites downtown.

National and local homelessness and housing advocates opposed the measure for being punitive and criminalizing homelessness.

Local homelessness advocates like Benjamin Dunning from Denver Homeless Out Loud said he’s glad the court recognized the unlawfulness and harm of the measure’s time burden on city officials in contradiction with the court ruling. “But in truth, the whole piece of legislation is rotten,” he added.

Donald Whitehead Jr., executive director for the National Coalition for the Homeless, called the measure disturbing and said he sees it as “somewhat a copy of what’s happening in Texas with abortion.”

“Issues that some in the general public see as troubling, there’s now this pattern of enlisting those general public individuals to be a part of what some would see as a solution,” Whitehead said.

The city filed its lawsuit against Garrett Flicker, chair of the Denver Republican Party, who is behind the initiative. Flicker did not respond to interview requests by email.

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