Around 5:15 p.m. on May 9, the Denver City Council’s regular Monday meeting came to a halt. During the previous two hours, a number of Mile High City residents, many of whom wore shirts that read “ ‘Denver’s Decade of Doom’ from May 14, 2012 to May 14, 2022,” had stood up during the session’s public comment section to express their anger over the city’s unauthorized camping ordinance, which became law 10 years ago this week. “The shelters have not improved,” Denver resident Kenny White said. “The cops have not improved. Things have not improved over this decade, and it’s unacceptable and disgusting, especially everyone who has been here for the whole decade.”
As the ritual of hearing from citizens dragged on well past its allotted time, all but one member of the council left the room to take a recess. Those in attendance, however, remained defiant. “We’re going to disrupt this meeting every Monday until you listen to us,” activist Jerry Burton shouted from the microphone.
Anger over the unauthorized camping ordinance, also known as the urban camping ban, is not new. The measure, which outlaws camping or “dwelling temporarily in a place with shelter” on public or private property in the city and county of Denver, has been a source of unending controversy since it became law a decade ago. Here, we look back on those 10 years of dissension, including how key figures in the debate about homelessness in the Mile High City responded, legal challenges to the law, and what’s next after a decade of turmoil.
Origins of the Camping Ban
On the heels of the Occupy Wall Street Movement in New York City, hundreds of people pitched tents around downtown Denver in the fall of 2011, including at Civic Center Park near the State Capitol, to protest economic inequality. At the time, downtown business owners and Mayor Michael Hancock had already been trying to find a way to keep unhoused residents from sleeping in tents on the streets and in front of businesses. The protests exacerbated the tension.
The city enacted the sit-lie ordinance in 2005, which banned sitting or lying on sidewalks or other public rights-of-way in the downtown business district from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. But following the Occupy protests, then city councilmember Albus Brooks drafted the unauthorized camping ordinance. The measure, which already existed in cities like Atlanta and Phoenix, promised to outlaw erecting temporary dwellings, including tents and camps, on public or private property in the city and county of Denver. “There would be no camping ban if there wasn’t Occupy Denver,” says councilmember Robin Kniech, who has served on the governing body since 2011.
The ordinance came up for a vote at a Denver City Council meeting in May of that year. During the session, many people spoke passionately for and against what became known more simply as the urban camping ban. “We have the responsibility to market this city and bring conventions and tourists here, and when we do that, we create jobs,” said then president and CEO of Visit Denver Richard Scharf, who spoke in favor of the ban. “Tourism is 100 percent dependent on Denver being a clean, safe, humane, and inviting city.”
“I’ve been homeless, but I am not here to talk about that,” said Denver resident David Blank. “This law is too broad. Are you going to bring forward enough money to help all these organizations house the homeless people? I am concerned.”
Ultimately, the camping ban passed by a vote of 9 to 4 on May 14, 2012. “Tonight was not about winners or losers, it was about beginning a long process of providing smart services to individuals that need it the most,” Brooks said at the meeting. “Time and patient application, not rhetoric, will reveal the true nature of this ordinance.”
Denver Homelessness Out Loud
More than a year after the camping ban became law, a group of homelessness advocates formed Denver Homelessness Out Loud (DHOL) in fall 2012. The nonprofit’s initial goal was to conduct on-the-street surveys of homeless people to record how their lives had changed in the aftermath of the camping ban.
After about a year of collecting information, DHOL presented results from the survey, which included responses from 512 different people who had recently experienced homelessness, to a Denver City Council housing subcommittee in April 2013. Fifty-seven percent of respondents said they had been contacted by police for violating the camping ban, and 83 percent of people who DHOL talked to said they had been asked by Denver Police to pack their things and move from their current location without being offered alternative services, which is required for this type of action that is more commonly known as a sweep. Looking back, Benjamin Dunning, one of the original members of DHOL, says the report “fell on deaf ears,” as the subcommittee pointed out spelling and grammatical errors but didn’t formally respond to the report.
The findings from the survey spurred DHOL to continue collecting data from unhoused people, which can be found on their website. The group also started recording videos of city officials sweeping of homelessness encampments and uploading them to its YouTube page, further solidifying the organization’s role as the city’s primary antagonist when it came to homelessness and the camping ban.
One of DHOL’s most significant challenges to the camping ban came in May 2019, when the group gathered enough signatures to get Initiative 300, also known as the Right to Survive Act, on the municipal ballot. The measure promised to give Denverites experiencing homelessness the right to rest and shelter in “a non-obstructive manner” on public property in the Mile High City. The initiative would’ve effectively overturned the camping ban, but 80 percent of Denver voters rejected the proposal. “People will continue to sleep on the street in the cold and be terrorized every night,” Terese Howard, an activist with Housekeys Action Network Denver told Denver7 after the measure was rejected.
Howard believes city officials used the initiative’s defeat to reinforce the credibility of the camping ban. “It was used to push a narrative that people in Denver want the camping ban,” Howard says. “The perception that the camping ban is going to make homelessness disappear continues to exist even though we have had a camping ban for 10 years, and homelessness has not disappeared. In fact, it has become more visible.”
Legal Challenges to the Camping Ban
During the past decade, there were several instances when people took legal action against the city over the camping ban. In some cases, the lawsuits tried to overturn the law. Here are some of the most prominent legal challenges.
In the fall of 2016, the Denver Police Department conducted a series of sweeps at several large homeless encampments around the city. A lawyer named Jason Flores-Williams, who had recently moved to an apartment near Confluence Park, witnessed police officers and Department of Public Works employees seize and discard homeless people’s personal belongings during one of the sweeps at the park. On behalf of Raymond Lyall and six other plaintiffs, all of whom had items taken during a sweep (including a wheelchair), Flores-Williams filed a lawsuit in 2016 against the city for violation of personal property rights.
The suit argued that the city had infringed on due process by not allowing the plaintiffs to retrieve their personal items. A district court judge ruled in their favor of Flores-Williams’ clients in the fall of 2019, and new rules were established for how the city could handle homeless sweeps. Notably, the city must post notice of a sweep 48 hours beforehand for smaller encampments and seven days ahead of time for larger encampments. The settlement also specified that the city can’t throw away anyone’s property during a sweep.
Controversy over the provisions in what became known as the Lyall Settlement continued during the pandemic. With the help of Andy McNulty, a civil rights lawyer with Killmer, Lane & Newman in Denver, 10 members of DHOL filed a lawsuit against the city in fall of 2020 for failing to post notice during sweeps conducted that summer. The Denver Department of Public Health and Environment claimed they did not post prior notice of the sweep because the encampments were violating health code violations, which, during the pandemic, was a heightened concern. The plaintiffs won, and a subsequent court ruling in January 2021 laid out additional rules for how the city must conduct sweeps, including having to post notice no matter the circumstances, along with having to tell City Council why, where, and when the sweeps will occur.
Last week, however, a 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals panel overruled the January 2021 ruling. Now, the city is no longer technically required to adhere to the specific rules set forth by the Lyall Settlement, though a spokesperson for the Denver City Attorney’s Office said the city will anyway. “The city may turn back and start doing no-notice sweeps based on ‘public health and safety emergencies,’ ” Howard with Housekeys Action Network Denver says. “This affects our litigation around city abuses and sweeps.” As of May, McNulty says he plans to appeal the ruling.
In January 2019, Marine veteran Jerry Burton, who had been experiencing homelessness at the time, decided to help organize a community of unsheltered Denverites. His efforts led him to create Jer-E-Ville, an encampment of 20 people that moved throughout the city. Jer-E-Ville had rules: “No hard drugs, no drinking outside your tent, noise comes down after 10 p.m.,” Burton says. “Neighbors didn’t mind because I would talk to all of them. I swept the sidewalk streets.”
Jer-E-Ville was largely unbothered by police for the first few months. But in spring of that year, Denver police ticketed Burton for violating the camping ban. He immediately called up Andy McNulty. “Jerry was running a model encampment,” McNulty says. “I saw what Jerry was doing as an example of the community doing something the right way.” The pair decided to bring a suit against the city that challenged the ticket; the legal action also served as a way to question the constitutionality of the unauthorized camping ordinance.
Judge Barajas of the 10th Circuit Court ultimately ruled in Burton’s favor in December 2019, saying the violation infringed on the constitution’s Eighth Amendment, which prevents cruel and unusual punishment. (Of note: Just because a law is deemed unconstitutional does not mean it is automatically repealed.) Mayor Hancock did not agree with the ruling, and the Denver City Attorney’s Office moved swiftly to appeal the court’s decision. A few weeks later, a district court ruled in the city’s favor for the appeal, and the camping ban remains law today.
Mayor Hancock’s Efforts
Mayor Hancock has been an adamant supporter of the camping ban since it first became law. He has argued that it would force the city to come up with creative solutions to deal with homelessness. Since 2012, he has invested hundreds of millions of dollars into programs to attempt to do just that, including notable ones below.
The mayor’s approach, however, has garnered mixed reviews. “All that has been created is an extension of the shelter system,” Howard says. “The shortage of [affordable] housing is a matter of political will. Developers are making billions here, and homeless people are criminalized.” According to Yardi Matrix, a real estate investment firm, Denver saw more construction of new apartments in the past decade than all but two other metro areas across the country; about half of the new residences were considered luxury housing units.
Despite the criticism, the mayor feels as though he has created solutions to homelessness. The mayor’s office declined to make Hancock available for an interview for this piece, but Theresa Marchetta, his chief communication officer, said, “We are building a legacy of housing people.”
The City’s Affordable Housing Fund
In 2016, four years after the camping ban became law, at-large city councilmember Robin Kniech and Mayor Hancock established a dedicated affordable housing fund to preserve and construct low-income housing. It pools money from a mix of property tax revenue and a one-time fee for new developers. “That was the first time ever there was a fee on development in the city’s history,” Kniech says. “And the first-ever property tax dedicated to housing in the city’s history.” By 2026, it’s estimated the fund will help put $270 million into creating and preserving at least 6,000 homes for low- and moderate-income families. Since 2016, the housing fund financed 2,508 homes and preserved 431.
Department of Housing Stability
Mayor Hancock established Denver’s first-ever department dedicated to housing stability in 2019. The new department directs the city’s resources for homelessness programs, temporary housing, and affordable homes into one department. “What we pitched was that the department would really combine the whole spectrum of housing,” says Britta Fisher, the city’s former chief housing officer, who became the executive director of the Department of Housing Stability (aka HOST) in 2019. “I remain very proud to have worked in this administration that prioritizes people with the fewest resources,” Fisher says about the department’s work, including its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In September 2021, HOST released their five-year plan, which aims to cut the number of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness in half, end veteran homelessness, and create 7,000 affordable homes in Denver during that time. “It’s without a doubt ambitious,” Fisher says. “It’s definitely going to take every resource that we have at the city of Denver, certainly, but it needs to be leveraged with the efforts of our community, nonprofit partners, individual, and philanthropic community as well.”
Safe Outdoor Spaces
One potential solution for homelessness in Denver that gained notable traction in the past few years was government-sanctioned campsites, otherwise known as safe outdoor spaces. The idea came from Cole Chandler, who now serves as executive director of the Colorado Village Collaborative (CVC), a local nonprofit that builds and operates temporary housing.
In 2017, following a series of sweeps of homelessness encampments that garnered negative news attention, the city was under pressure to come up with solutions for Denver’s homeless population. When CVC was formed that year, Mayor Michael Hancock gave the organization access to private land at 38th and Blake streets, which was used to build a tiny home village that helped house residents experiencing homelessness.
The sweeps continued, though, and many Denverites voiced their displeasure over how the city treated people experiencing homelessness. In the fall of 2017, Howard, Burton, and other members of DHOL camped outside of City Hall to protest the criminalization of homelessness. On November 28, a video of Denver police officers taking blankets from Burton went viral. The incident even made the front page of the New York Times.
In the aftermath of the major headlines, Chandler began pushing for safe outdoor spaces, including on land owned by the city. Mayor Michael Hancock was initially against the idea, but changed his mind during the first year of the pandemic after cities like Austin and San Francisco opened similar government-sanctioned camps to aid the growing number of unhoused people on their streets.
Colorado Village Collaborative officially opened the city’s first two safe outdoor spaces in the parking lots of First Baptist Church and Denver Community Church in December 2020. The city decided to help fund the initiatives in January 2021, and later that year, the first safe outdoor space on city property opened in the parking lot of the Denver Department of Human Services. Each site can house 50 people in ice fishing tents for up to six months; they also feature portable toilets, a communal kitchen, and sinks.
Safe outdoor spaces have been successful at keeping people warm during cold months, and in some cases, they’ve even helped residents gain enough stability to find permanent housing. Critics of safe outdoor spaces, however, say the campsites are too expensive. Housing an individual in a safe outdoor space for a month costs between $600 and $800, according to Chandler, and the total budget for running a safe outdoor space for six months is around $1 million.
Despite the cost, Denver City Council signed a $3.9 million contract with CVC in February. Chandler said the money will help CVC run a total of four safe outdoor spaces, allowing the group to house 370 people throughout the city in 2022.
After serving three terms (the limit for the city government’s chief executive), Mayor Michael Hancock will leave office following the 2023 mayoral election, during which the homelessness and the camping ban promise to be hot topics. Some candidates who have already announced their intention to run, including activists like Ean Thomas Tafoya and Terrance Roberts, promise to usher in a change in policy, possibly even moving to overturn the urban camping ban.
A difficult reality awaits the next mayor and members of City Council, including a shortage of affordable housing and real estate prices that have nearly doubled over the past decade. The growing fentanyl epidemic has also made living on the streets more deadly for many unhoused residents. On a given night in the Denver metro area, approximately 5,530 people stay in the shelter system. An annual report by Metro Denver Homeless Initiative also shows the number of first-time homeless people in the metro area doubled from 2020 to 2021.
“Unhoused residents of our city do not have access to basic sanitation, nor the ability to secure their property,” says Tafoya, founder of Headwaters Protectors, an organization that provides water and trash services to people experiencing homelessness in Denver. “The current situation isn’t working for anyone.”
Editor’s note: 5/16/21: In an earlier version of this story, we stated that the city’s Affordable Housing Fund will help put $150 million into creating 6,000 homes for low- and moderate-income families. The correct dollar is figure is $270 million. We regret the error.