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9,000 signatures of support mean urban camping measure could appear on Denver ballot

Backers of the Right to Survive initiative, which would allow homeless people in Denver to camp where they wish, delivered more than 9,000 signatures of support Monday morning.

DENVER — Backers of the Right to Survive initiative delivered more than 9,000 signatures of support Monday morning to Denver's election headquarters building at 14th Avenue and Bannock Street.

The steps they took from Civic Center Park to the Denver Elections Division likely secured the measure a spot on the ballot, meaning it would be up to Denver voters to take the next steps and vote on the initiative, which would allow homeless people to set up camp where they choose.

“It protects the right to sleep, sit, lay down and cover yourself,” said Terese Howard, organizer for the advocacy group Denver Homeless Out Loud.

An ordinance passed by Denver City Council in 2012 bans people from camping on public and private property without consent. Homeless advocates have unsuccessfully pushed for statewide legislation over the years to end the ban, including a measure struck down by legislators in March.

“It doesn’t work to keep pushing people from street to street, to alley to sidewalk to riverbank,” Howard said. “It just plain doesn’t work.”

The Right to Survive initiative would allow the homeless to set up camp where they wish. It would protect the right “to rest and shelter oneself from the elements in a non-obstructive manner in outdoor public spaces.” It would allow people to eat and share food in public spaces and sleep in their cars.

Councilman Albus Brooks worries the initiative would change more than voters realize.

“Our parks curfew, our camping ordinance, our major encumbrance ordinance – any of our ordinances we use,” Brooks explained. “If people are setting up structures on sidewalks, we won’t be able to use them anymore.”

Brooks said he’d support an initiative that touched on housing and mental health.

“I think it’s ridiculous as a city we’re okay with people sleeping everywhere,” he said.

Outreach teams funded by the city’s homelessness agency, Denver’s Road Home, work to connect with people across Denver who live on the streets. Data provided by Denver Human Services showed outreach teams connected with nearly 4,000 people through the first half of 2018. About 1,100 of those people were referred to mental and behavioral health resources, 121 people were housed and 693 were referred to emergency shelters.

Howard and organizers with DHOL argued that the city must address homeless rights and housing challenges simultaneously.

“People are on the streets and they’re going to continue to be on the streets until we actually have addressed our economy and our housing market in a much, much, much more serious way than anybody is proposing right now,” Howard said.

Denver Police currently enforce the camping ban in Denver, but according to a training bulletin provided by DPD, “Denver police officers will not seize tents, tarps, blankets, sleeping bags, or other camping related items.”

Howard said police officers had contacted thousands of homeless people violating the ordinance over the years. However, Councilman Brooks claimed that 22 people were ticketed in the seven years the ban has been in place.

Denver elections officials will review the signatures submitted Monday. Howard said voters should know on October 29 if the initiative will be on the ballot.

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