Ask nearly any Colorado lawmaker, and they’ll tell you that it’s wrong to criminalize homelessness.
“Philosophically, I think the majority of us agree that it’s inhumane,” said state Rep. Edie Hooton, D-Boulder.
And yet, four times in the last six years, state lawmakers have resoundingly rejected — in bipartisan votes — bills that sought to establish a “homeless bill of rights.” Previous bills sought to allow all people to be able to “use and move freely in public spaces, to rest in public spaces.”
In his final year at the legislature, state Rep. Jovan Melton, an Aurora Democrat who co-championed the failed bills, is giving it one more try. This time, he’s running a narrower bill, and early signs indicate more openness from his colleagues.
The bill would allow people to occupy public spaces — including for sleep purposes — except in places where the local government offers adequate shelter. “Adequate” is the operative word there: ” It can’t just be a building. It has to be a place where people can live out their basic life functions,” Melton said. “Say you’re working a swing shift, but the shelter says we stop taking people at 5 p.m. Well, that’s not adequate. That doesn’t meet that person’s needs.”
People experiencing homelessness in various Colorado cities consistently say that shelters are inadequate in a variety of ways. They can have strict curfews, prohibit storage of certain personal belongings and separate couples by allowing only men or only women. Some say shelters feel unsafe or cramped.
The 2020 bill would also allow people to occupy and sleep in cars that are legally parked on public property.
“In previous ‘right to rest’ bills, we tried to lay out what people’s rights are — rights to eat, to sleep. We’re not spelling out a litany of different rights this time,” Melton said. “We’re just saying that a city shouldn’t prohibit someone from sleeping outside if they have no other place to go.”
Melton and his co-sponsor, Adams County Democratic Rep. Adrienne Benavidez, are emboldened by recent court rulings, both in Denver and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, that have declared camping bans to constitute cruel and unusual punishment.
“It’s a different conversation now,” he said. “In the past we didn’t have the court rulings. It was arguing it from a moral standpoint. Now we’ll argue it from a legal standpoint.”
It would be significant if this bill can even advance out of a House committee, which previous and broader versions never did. That committee hearing is slated for Feb. 26, and it could be a close vote.
Committee members Hooton and state Rep. Alex Valdez, a Democrat who represents downtown Denver, where much of the city’s homeless population is concentrated, both say they’re leaning at the moment toward voting for the bill. State Rep. Tony Exum, a Colorado Springs Democrat, has voted for the bill in the past.
“Of course I’m leaning yes. I care about people,” Valdez said. “But it has to be done right.”
Hooton said she would have voted for a 2019 Denver ballot measure that sought to decriminalize homelessness, and that lost in a rout on Election Night.
Others on the committee worry about getting too far ahead of local governments in places like Denver and Boulder, which continue to defend their camping bans.
“I think that some of the well-intentioned efforts don’t necessarily fix the problem,” said state Rep. Terri Carver, a Colorado Springs Republican. “I think we need to pay a lot of attention to what our local cities and counties are saying, and ways we can be helpful to them.”
In what may be a testament to just how narrow this year’s bill is compared to previous versions, the advocacy group Denver Homeless Out Loud appears to be on the fence about supporting it. Melton said he has heard concerns from that group that his bill doesn’t go far enough.
“We haven’t come to any sort of consensus,” organizer Terese Howard said.
Melton’s bill may not be the only anti-camping ban measure proposed this year. Denver Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca said last month that she’ll propose a repeal of the city’s ban, though when she will formally propose the repeal remains unclear.
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