Opinion: Denver, and cities across the nation, must be able to sweep homeless camps

Homeless encampments are dangerous, unhealthy and uncompassionate spaces. Cities and counties need the ability to quickly close them in order to address threats to health and safety in public places — both to the unhoused individuals who are camping there and the community impacted by them.

The United States Supreme Court will soon weigh in and decide a pivotal case that will likely determine the legality of Denver’s own anti-camping ordinance and homeless encampment sweeps in the future.

City of Grants Pass v. Johnson is a lawsuit brought on behalf of the homeless population in Grants Pass, Oregon, which has ordinances — like Denver — that restrict camping in city parks and other public places.

Grants Pass has the ability to enforce these ordinances with a ticket and possible jail time. The legal question presented is whether the enforcement of generally applicable laws regulating camping on public property constitutes cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Eighth Amendment.

This is a case that the Supreme Court needed to take, because the 9th Circuit which has created an unworkable legal patchwork of standards, went too far when it enjoined Grants Pass from enforcing these laws.

Denver’s metropolitan region has suffered from one of the nation’s worst surges in homelessness. The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless estimates that homelessness increased a whopping 39% from 2022 to 2023, the fourth largest percentage increase in the country. Completely unsheltered homelessness — those camping outdoors instead of using day or night shelters — increased by 50% alone over the prior year.

Simultaneously, we have dedicated unprecedented amounts of public funding to address homelessness. Colorado spent nearly $2 billion on homelessness, largely concentrated in the Denver metro region over the last three years and an estimated $30,000 to $60,000 per person experiencing homelessness according to a 2023 Common Sense Institute report.

Denver, like other cities across the country, faces a challenging and complicated landscape when addressing this issue, as recently evidenced by the clearing of a significant homeless encampment at 8th Avenue and Navajo Street. Denver officials were criticized by some homeless advocates, like an advocate from the Housekeys Action Network Denver who claimed it was basically cruel and unusual punishment after Denver closed this encampment because of public health and safety reasons.

The advocate completely ignored that neighbors had complained about human waste, drug use and violence as well as private property and right-of-way infringements.

Credit Mayor Mike Johnston and his administration for working to solve this humanitarian tragedy and tirelessly attempting to find shelter at one of the city-run or contracted facilities while simultaneously navigating an unprecedented migrant crisis.

This particular encampment closure was the only time in the past six months, that the city did so without being able to find appropriate shelter for the people that were living there. According to Johnston’s All in Mile High Initiative, over 1,500 unhoused people have moved inside since he took office.

Make no mistake: anti-camping ordinances, in and of themselves, are not a solution to homelessness, but they are a necessary tool to help people get off the streets, and to connect them to important resources. Camping ordinances also protect the public.

After Austin, Texas, repealed its camping ban in 2019, Point In Time data saw a 45% increase in unsheltered homelessness, and a 20% decrease in the shelter populations by the following year. The ban was overwhelmingly reinstated by voters two years later.

Denver should be able to set its own policies and not be enjoined from enforcing reasonable restrictions when, in the exceptional case, there is no option of sleeping indoors.  Yes, ideally, there is housing for everyone displaced, but the data also shows that not everyone wants to be sheltered. A significant portion of unsheltered people do not wish to accept services or a place in housing or a public sanctioned and controlled camping area. Public camping regulations can perform an important deterrent that promotes public safety.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s amicus brief filed with the Supreme Court advocating for the reversal of the 9th Circuit decision aptly noted, “While the residents of public encampments may have fostered an important sense of community, stability and place in these areas, public encampments indisputable threaten public health and safety.”

The Common Sense Institute Report showed that deaths among Denver’s unhoused rival or surpass other cities with similar issues, with drug overdoses being the largest cause of death (56% of those who died). By October of 2023, the Denver Fire Department had cited 130 fires linked to homeless encampments.

There are also high rates of crime inside these encampments.

Business owners and residents have to deal with trash, human waste, used needles, open drug use, property damage, theft, and other criminal activity at and around these encampments.

Opponents also complain that Denver’s camping ban, like Grants Pass, only punishes the homelessness by allowing ticketing or even jailing for unlawfully camping outdoors. The record, however, reflects that these enforcement tools are mainly a deterrent and have reportedly only been used in the most extreme situations.

Axios recently cited Denver police data that 55 tickets have been issued since the law’s inception in 2012 and only 12 have involved jail time. Officials should not issue tickets on this basis alone when they cannot offer indoor shelter to someone who has nowhere else to go.

Here’s the bottom line: there is no magic fix or one-size-fits-all solution to the issue of homelessness. Our leaders must have the flexibility and a wide array of tools to address this crisis and the ability to work with their constituents and community stakeholders to enact and enforce reasonable regulations to protect health and safety, which cannot occur when judge-made barriers exist.

And, they must continue to create affordable housing options and also find new and creative solutions to meet the moment.

Doug Friednash grew up in Denver and is a partner with the law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber and Schreck. He is the former chief of staff for Gov. John Hickenlooper.

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