Don't Get Hung Up on the Denver Camping Ban

Donald Burnes PhD

Over the last several years, there has been a major debate about Denver’s camping ban. Some have argued that its enactment and enforcement are necessary to keep the City clean and hospitable and to encourage street denizens into shelter. Others consider the ban a way of criminalizing homelessness and an abrogation of basic human rights.

As one considers the Denver camping ban and the larger issue of addressing homelessness, there are two fundamental questions we must ask. The first is, how can we improve the lives of those living on the streets and in shelters without adversely affecting the quality of life of tens of thousands who live and work in or visit Denver? The second question is, why are there almost 4,000 people in Denver without homes to begin with, and how can we change the circumstances that create homelessness in our midst?

A lead editorial in the Denver Post in early January of this year suggested that we need to keep the camping ban to protect the quality of life of the citizens of Denver and simultaneously that we as a community should “pour an abundance of resources into [improving our] shelters.” Both perspectives are addressing the first of the two fundamental questions.

To examine this question further, a recent court decision found the camping ban unconstitutional because there is not adequate shelter space to “house” all those living on the streets. Although there may be as many as 200 unused shelter beds on any given night, the 2019 Point-In-Time Survey (PIT) found that there were 554 unsheltered people in Denver, and this is most certainly an undercount. Therefore, there are at least 350 people without any possible shelter, and, for them, being forced to live on the streets during regular and very troublesome police harassment is indeed inhumane.

Improving the City’s array of shelters is certainly important, as the Post advocated. Most of the available shelters are overcrowded, often unhealthy, and unsafe. For couples, those with service and companion animals, others whose job hours do not coincide with shelter hours, and those in acute distress, shelter accommodations are simply not accessible, thus creating further hardship.

However, by focusing on the camping ban either to extol its merits or to denounce it or by arguing for ways to improve and expand the shelters in Denver, we do nothing to address the second fundamental question, i.e., why there are so many unhoused people to begin with. We tinker at the edges and fail to examine fundamental flaws in our systems of housing and services that create such hardship for those without homes. We fail to recognize that our inability to solve homelessness by not creating adequate supplies of affordable housing unravels the social and civic fabric of our community.

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, an individual must make over $29 an hour to afford an average 2-bedroom unit in Denver. Despite a typical perception that those on the streets “just need to get a job,”  a recent survey of research by Tobin and Murphy suggests that about 45% of those experiencing homelessness are employed. In Denver, according to the 2017 PIT, the last year that questions about employment were asked, 61 % of the respondents indicated that they had received some income from working. In short, while housing prices in Denver are skyrocketing, people experiencing homelessness simply can’t make enough money to afford rent.

In order to address homelessness seriously, we must look beyond shelters and the camping ban and increase our local and state commitment to creating affordable and attainable low-income housing. While there has been increased effort to build such units, the investment is far short of what’s needed; we must do substantially more.

The Denver City Council has attacked the problem of wages by passing a local ordinance to raise the minimum wage to over $15 within the next few years; that is an important next step. However, we desperately need to create more entry and mid-level jobs so that there will be fewer unemployed and under-employed persons. Perhaps a major initiative around our infrastructure is an appropriate way to start this process.

The growing social and economic inequity in our country only exacerbates the tragedy of homelessness. According to a recent report by the Economic Policy Institute, “In 2015, a family in the top 1 percent nationally received on average 26.3 times as much income as a family in the bottom 99 percent.” A 2013 study by the National Alliance to End Homelessness indicated that  families in the bottom 20% of incomes spend 87 percent of their $10,100 average annual on housing, leaving them about $1,300 a year for everything else, or about $100 a month. In contrast, families in the top 20% spend only 19% on housing, leaving them with almost $126,000 for other expenses. This is unacceptable. We must create more financial resources for those at the bottom, especially those experiencing homelessness.

Another indication of the inequity is available federal subsidies for housing. According to the Federal Reserve Board, only 20% of the $250 billion dollars spent on housing subsidies goes to low-income renters through various housing programs. 80% goes to high income homeowners through the mortgage interest deduction and deductions for state and local taxes. In other words, those who need it the most get the least, and those who need it the least get the most.

As the Frameworks Institute in Washington suggests, due to a variety of federal, state, and local policies, rents and mortgages are increasing much faster than income and earnings, thus creating major economic and social pressure that affects us all, especially those without homes.

More affordable housing alone is insufficient. Other improvements in various systems must be made available for those experiencing homelessness. These include access to healthy and affordable food, healthcare, and child-care as well as better and cheaper public transportation and better educational opportunities. We must also focus attention on building networks of support and community for those experiencing homelessness.

In short, while improving our City’s shelters to provide more and better access to appropriate places for people to sleep is important, and harassing people living on the streets does nothing to improve their situation, we must examine the systems that are creating the problems and work to change them. Only in this way will we truly end homelessness.

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