Push for broader homeless camping ban enforcement would complicate Denver’s already fraught law

A proposed ballot initiative in Denver would double down on the city’s controversial — and legally questionable — camping ban aimed at people experiencing homelessness. If it passes, it could also open the city up to new lawsuits.

Denver GOP Chairman Garrett Flicker initially filed the proposal in February, and received tentative Denver Clerk and Recorder’s Office approval late last month. Flicker, who didn’t immediately respond to a message seeking comment, must collect 9,184 voter signatures by early July in order for the ban to end up on the city’s November ballot.

Flicker’s proposed ordinance would ban anyone from camping on private property without written permission from the owners. It would also allow sanctioned camping sites in up to four spots on public property, which would need to have amenities like running water, restrooms and lighting.

The proposal would also require city officials to enforce the camping ban within 72 hours of receiving a complaint and allow people to sue if the city fails to clear the camp.

But Denver already has an urban camping ban, said attorney Andy McNulty, and his lawsuit claims the law is unconstitutional.

McNulty sued the city on behalf of Jerry Burton, who received a ticket from Denver police for violating the city’s urban camping ban at a previous site commonly known as Jerr-E-Ville that moved between Curtis Park and Five Points. A county court judge ruled in late 2019 the ban was cruel and unusual punishment, but Denver attorneys won on appeal in September, however, and McNulty said he has requested that the Colorado Supreme Court take up the case.

The new proposal from Flicker would force city officials to enforce an unconstitutional law, McNulty said, and open the city up to lawsuits otherwise.

“Damned if they, damned if they don’t,” McNulty said. “This would be a waste of resources. It would do nothing to solve our homelessness crisis and would only make it worse.”

Denver city spokesman Mike Strott declined to comment on the proposal because it does not yet have enough signatures to make the November ballot.

Sanctioned camping sites on public land in Denver have already proved difficult. Nearly a year after Mayor Michael Hancock gave his reluctant blessing for public camping areas — known as safe outdoor spaces — only two have opened, and they’ve been on private property because neighbors effectively forced the people seeking public-land camps to withdraw their request.

Plus, the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado believes police couldn’t legally enforce the camping ban because Denver doesn’t have enough shelter space to house every person living on the streets.

According to the 2020 survey by Metro Denver Homeless Initiative, about 4,171 people who were experiencing homelesses lived in Denver and there were 2,304 emergency shelter beds available. The full 2021 survey was delayed because of the pandemic, so volunteers only tallied those living in the city’s shelters.

The proposal would also likely invite a disproportionate level of enforcement focused on people of color, ACLU attorney Annie Kurtz added, saying, “What our unhoused neighbors need right now is more housing, not more policing and punishment.”

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