Opinion: Camping bans are legal now. Colorado cities should redouble enforcement.

Estimated read time 4 min read

There are things you can’t unsee — people defecating, people shooting up, people having sex, people without pants, and piles of rat-infested trash. Nobody needs those images seared in the mind.

Cities have an obligation to taxpayers to remove vagrant camps from public spaces. Enabling people to live in squalor isn’t compassionate, and it’s unfair to taxpayers who want to use their parks, storefronts, sidewalks, and streets without having to witness human degradation.

Fortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court recently decided in Johnson v Grants Pass that cities can enforce bans on urban camping even if they do not offer free shelter. It does not violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment to disallow encampments on public land.

Aurora and Denver have camping bans on the books but thanks to lawsuits and lower-court rulings, enforcement has been uneven. The Supreme Court decision has removed that legal cloud. City authorities should take the opportunity to redouble their efforts to disband vagrant camps and put individuals on a path to sobriety, work, mental health, a home of their own, and self-reliance. Human beings respond to incentives and when life on the street is discouraged, they will be more likely to seek help.

Denver and Aurora have adopted different strategies to provide assistance to homeless individuals while abating encampments in some areas. Enforcement of Denver’s camping ban has increased under Mayor Mike Johnston’s administration. Johnston set a goal of housing 2,000 people, at least temporarily, by the end of 2024. Denver is on track to meet this goal.

According to city’s dashboard 1,623 homeless people have been housed in motel rooms, tiny houses, or other temporary accommodations. Of these, half remain in temporary shelters, a third have found permanent shelter, and the remainder have returned to the streets, died, went to jail, or their whereabouts are unknown.

Denver’s All in Mile High Housing First-oriented strategy should be commended for helping a third of program participants to secure permanent housing. The city will need to continue to track participant outcomes over the long term. Only a minority of participants have requested help with substance abuse and many of the hotel-turned-shelters have become epicenters of drug use and violence.

Because the program does not require participants to commit to sobriety or work, they are at risk of returning to the street. Some people become homeless because of drug and alcohol abuse while others become addicted to cope on the street. Either way, sobriety and full-time work are key to long-term success and self-sufficient sheltered living.

By contrast, Aurora has chosen a Work First approach. The city is building a navigation resource center at the old Crowne Plaza Hotel that includes shelter and assistance in securing work training and employment. Additionally, those cited for urban camping in areas where it is not allowed, trespassing and other low-level offenses will have the opportunity to have their case heard at the new HEART (Housing, Employment, Addiction, Recovery, and Teamwork) Court. Instead of jail time, offenders would be ordered to participate in mental health treatments, job training, or substance abuse recovery programs. While Denver offers help, Aurora will require it.

Whether they have implemented a Housing First or Work First program, both cities and their adjacent suburban communities should strictly enforce urban camping bans. Cities show abundant compassion for those who are struggling on the streets, but they can do a better job providing clean and secure public spaces for those who live, work, operate businesses, and raise families within city limits.

Krista L. Kafer is a weekly Denver Post columnist. Follow her on Twitter: @kristakafer.

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