Denver voters will be faced with an important question in May when they are asked to vote on Initiative 300.
The ballot language reads: Shall the voters of the City and County of Denver adopt a measure that secures and enforces basic rights for all people within the jurisdiction of the City and County of Denver, including the right to rest and shelter oneself from the elements in a non-obstructive manner in outdoor public spaces; to eat, share, accept or give free food in any public space where food is not prohibited; to occupy one’s own legally parked motor vehicle, or occupy a legally parked motor vehicle belonging to another, with the owner’s permission; and to have a right and expectation of privacy and safety of or in one’s person and property?
Sounds pretty innocuous, right? But a thoughtful voter needs to read between the lines and carefully consider the impacts that this broadly written and far-reaching policy could have on Denver, and particularly property owners.
To understand the full context of this issue, you need to understand where it is coming from. The proponents of this policy are two small organizations, Homeless Outloud and Occupy Denver, who have been critical of Denver’s Urban Camping Ban policy since it was adopted in 2012. As you’ll recall, the policy was put in place after Occupy Denver created an encampment in Civic Center Park. It should be noted at the time they were encamped in Civic Center Park, Occupy Denver was not affiliated with the homeless community, nor did they identify as homeless individuals.
Fast-forward to today. Occupy Denver and Homeless Outloud are asking voters to allow individuals to camp in any and all public places in Denver. They say their goal is to overturn the camping ban, but Initiative 300 is much broader than that.
The definition of public spaces included in the proposal is very broad: “Any outdoor property that is owned or leased by the City and County of Denver and is accessible to the public, or any city property upon which there is an easement for public use.”
This includes our parks and playgrounds, riverways and open spaces, sidewalks and alleyways, even medians in parkways and easements along roads. It will impact all neighborhoods and regions of Denver and invariably impact private property values, residential and commercial.
While reading the ballot question and full initiative language is a good start, it is just as important to understand what is not in the ballot language.
This initiative says nothing about providing funding or support for affordable housing, shelters, outreach services, mental health counseling or job training for people experiencing homelessness.
Even worse, it could have a chilling effect on outreach efforts intended to connect people experiencing homelessness with support and services. The measure would make it unlawful to harass, threaten or intimidate anyone exercising his rights under this law, but fails to define those terms. So, an outreach worker or a first responder who approaches a person exercising his right to rest or shelter in a public place could be subject to legal action if the person being approached felt threatened or harassed.
If approved, Denver would be the first city in the country to adopt such a policy. It would take effect immediately upon passage. There is no road map for implementing such a policy and no time for Denver to sort it out.
Homelessness is a real challenge for our beloved city. More could and should be done to ensure Denver is a safe, welcoming and supportive place for everyone, including our neighbors experiencing homelessness. But Initiative 300 is not a solution to homelessness. It is an unprecedented, risky and inhumane approach that would turn our public places into campgrounds.
As Denver continues to grow, we will continue to face challenges, including how we best support those who are experiencing homelessness today and how we address the root causes of homelessness. The best solutions to complex problems will be found by working together – to be thorough in our studies, inclusive in our conversations and clear in our policies. Initiative 300 is not informed by research, was not developed in an inclusive way and is not a clear policy forward.