Denver camping ban fight already resurfacing in mayoral runoff

Initiative 300 was the next great hope for Denver’s homeless rights reformers — until it was rejected on Election Day by a crushing 82 percent of the city’s voters.

But last week’s decision was not the end of the debate. Denver’s thousands of homeless people aren’t going to disappear with voters’ decision to keep the camping ban in place, and advocates say they are eager to hear what Initiative 300 opponents had in mind as an alternative when they said the ballot measure wasn’t the answer.

In addition, the city’s urban camping ban — the controversial law at the center of the campaign — is a divisive issue in the mayoral runoff between incumbent Michael Hancock and challenger Jamie Giellis, who opposes the ban.

“There’s so much possibility looking forward. We ignited a massive conversation,” said I-300 organizer Terese Howard. “It was the No. 1 conversation in the entire election.”

The results of the “Right to Survive” measure surprised both campaigns.

On one side was a grassroots circle of activists who have clashed with Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration for years, including through a federal lawsuit. On the other were some of the city’s most powerful interests, which collected millions of dollars from institutions and individual donors to fight I-300 under the name “Together Denver.”

“This set the hair on fire of people across the city,” said Roger Sherman, manager of the Together Denver campaign. “I’ve never seen an issue with such a lopsided result.”

Even opponents say Right to Survive had early momentum with voters, despite the decisive result in the other direction.

“Early polling showed very low awareness. Major stakeholders, organizations were aware of this, but the average everyday citizen wasn’t,” said Sherman, an employee of the CRL Associates consultancy. “This would have passed. If we had just left this, without educating the voter, it very well could have passed.”

The failed proposal would have overturned the camping ban and guaranteed people’s rights to take shelter under blankets and tents in public spaces, among other changes. In the aftermath, the campaigners will regroup and reconsider their approach.

“Eventually, it will happen. Eventually, we’ll win,” Howard said. “I would say that it exposed a lot more fear, misunderstanding and hate than I think many of us thought were there. We knew that was part of society and why we’re in this crisis to begin with.”

Homeless advocate Jerry Burton (right) talks ...
Joe Amon, The Denver Post

Homeless advocate Jerry Burton (right) talks with a man who only identified himself as “Wolf” about voting in the upcoming runoff elections near his hidden tent in downtown Denver May 9, 2019. After Denver’s camping ban repeal failed, Burton says, “If we can do better, show me.”

Big spending

Together Denver raised about $2.3 million through April, making it the priciest campaign of the season so far. The top donors were Downtown Denver Partnership, the National Association of Realtors, Colorado Concern and Visit Denver, but the group also collected money from hundreds of individual donors.

The $2.3 million-plus raised by the opposition campaign raised cries of disgust from some critics. They questioned why it wasn’t spent on services instead, or they said that the city’s real estate and business interests were stamping out a grassroots movement for homeless people.

“To have the proponents saying, ‘Isn’t it a shame we’re spending this money when it could go to other issues?’ — the answer is ‘Yes, it is a shame,” Sherman said. “And we wouldn’t have to spend that money if this issue wasn’t put on the ballot by Denver Homeless Out Loud.”

Opponents argued that the wording was far too broad. The city administration said it would limit the government’s ability to enforce sanitation laws and curfew, or even to offer services. And they got some ideological backup from the city’s major service providers, who warned of unintended consequences.

Terese Howard organizer with Denver Homeless ...
Joe Amon, The Denver Post

Terese Howard, an organizer with Denver Homeless Out Loud, expressed disappointment as Issue 300, the repeal of Denver’s camping ban, failed by a large amount on May 7, 2019.

A narrower approach?

The initiative’s wording may have been its undoing, Sherman suggested. Initiative 300 could have simply eliminated the camping ban, which was approved in 2012, rather than creating broad new rights, he said.

“I think it would have been a very different campaign,” he said.

Howard said the campaigners did consider a more limited approach. And they will likely attack the camping ban law more specifically in the future. But their ultimate focus is still on fundamental rights for people living in public.

“The existence of homelessness is a sign of mass greed and inequality, and those with (resources) don’t want to expose that, to admit that. They don’t want to admit they’ve been hoarding resources,” she said, or “face the fact that you’re going to see homelessness.”

Mayoral runoff

Meanwhile, the camping ban could be a factor in the runoff elections, including the mayoral race between Hancock and Giellis.

Both candidates opposed Initiative 300, but Giellis has said that the camping ban itself has done “nothing to solve the problem.” Following Tuesday’s election, she said that “treating our homeless like criminals is not an effective solution.”

Hancock remains committed to the unauthorized camping law, his campaign said. “Mayor Hancock stands steadfastly with the voters of Denver on this issue,” wrote spokesperson April Valdez Villa.

Together Denver, which campaigned on the idea that there is “a better way,” will convene its supporters after the June 4 runoff to talk about its next steps, according to Sherman.

“The Together Denver campaign was a strong reminder that Denver is a compassionate community that cares deeply about both its people and its public places, but the initiative has not caused people to start or stop doing work,” said Tami Door, CEO of the Downtown Denver Partnership, in a statement to The Denver Post.

She promised continued work to provide “comprehensive support and solutions” for homelessness. Visit Denver’s CEO, Richard Scharf, similarly promised to continue the organization’s “partnerships that support the city’s efforts focused on homeless services and solutions,” including with the city agency Denver’s Road Home.

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