Unprecedented Denver initiative seeks to decriminalize homelessness

Denver Rescue Mission. Photo courtesy of denverrescuemission.org

This May, Denver city residents will vote on Initiative 300, which intends to overturn several city ordinances that many feel are anti-homeless. Those who work with Denver’s homeless population, however, are unsure how successful the initiative would be.

Initiative 300, also known as the Right to Survive, was placed on the upcoming May 2019 ballot after over 9,000 signatures were delivered to the Denver Elections Division at the beginning of October. The initiative is unprecedented, as this is the first time in United States history that an initiative to decriminalize homelessness has been put on a ballot.

Prior to turning in the signatures, a group of people experiencing homelessness and their advocates gathered across the street from the Denver City and County Building, covering themselves in blankets to protest Denver’s controversial unauthorized camping ordinance. Also known as the urban camping ban, the ordinance prevents people from using “protective elements” in public spaces. This is just one of the measures that Right to Survive advocates hope to remove this spring.

However, for Alexxa Gagner, director of public relations at Denver Rescue Mission, the initiative doesn’t seem to provide the necessary resources to get people off the street.

“We just don’t see any viable solution in Initiative 300 that will help people experiencing homelessness,” Gagner said. “There’s just not a lot of tangible solutions there.”

Established in 1892, the Denver Rescue Mission is a local nonprofit organization that provides a variety of resources for homeless men, women and children in Denver and Northern Colorado. Gagner says that the mission provides real, tangible resources that help people experiencing homelessness navigate their current situation and “connect them with the services that will help them the most.”

Gagner emphasized that Initiative 300’s goal is not to add resources but instead remove current legislation. According to the Right to Survive website, the following rights would be protected for all people within Denver if the initiative passes:

  • The right to rest in a non-obstructive manner in public spaces.
  • The right to shelter oneself from the elements in a non-obstructive manner in outdoor public spaces.
  • The right to eat, share, accept or give free food in any public space where food is not prohibited.
  • The right to occupy one’s own legally parked motor vehicle or occupy a legally parked motor vehicle belonging to another, with the owner’s permission.
  • The right and expectation of safety and privacy of or in one’s person and belongings while occupying public spaces.

The Denver Right to Survive initiative is run by an all-volunteer workforce. Supporters of the initiative include many homeless advocacy groups, such as Denver Homeless Out Loud and the National Coalition for the Homeless. Earlier this February, the Democratic Party of Denver also endorsed the initiative.

A major opposition of the initiative is a group known as Together Denver, which is concerned that the initiative will hurt the city’s ability to regulate curfews, parks, sidewalks and other public areas. The group has even gained a financial contribution from a vice president of the Denver Rescue Mission, which works closely with the city to offer a wide range of services for the homeless. A majority of critics say that the initiative proposal is too broad to properly tackle Denver’s homelessness problem.

Christina Carlson, the CEO of Urban Peak, a nonprofit that specifically serves youth between the ages of 15 and 24 who experience homelessness, shares a similar sentiment.

“The Right to Survive is a very complex policy conversation, and of course, policy impacts the population that we work with,” Carlson said. “That being said, I don’t think policy solves complex issues. Complex issues and problems, in my humble opinion, are solved by innovative solutions, and those solutions are typically wrapped in services.”

One of the issues, Carlson explained, is that since Initiative 300 is one of the first of its kind in the country, there isn’t a concrete idea of what the initiative would look like in action. Carlson says she puts the youth she serves above everything else and raised concerns that a lack of information could end up hurting homeless youth.

“At the end of the day, the most important thing for Urban Peak is to provide the best solution and best services for the youth that we work with,” Carlson said. “I would hate for any policy one way or another to impact our ability to do that.”

However, some people in the medical profession are concerned that current legislation puts the homeless into increasingly vulnerable, even fatal, positions. This becomes an especially prevalent problem during the winter, where overexposure to the elements becomes a common occurrence.

The 2018 Point in Time survey, conducted by the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative, found that 5,317 total people experienced homelessness on Jan. 29, 2018. Despite numerous flaws in the Point in Time survey’s methodology, which often produces a significant undercount of the homeless population at a given point in time, this is one of the few counting methods available.

That same year, at least 233 homeless people died in metro Denver between Jan. 1 and Dec. 13. According to the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, 2018 was the second record-setting year in a row for homeless deaths in the state.

Of the 110 homeless deaths confirmed by the Denver medical examiner, 27 people died of overdoses and 23 died of traumatic injuries, including shootings and suicide. Eight people died of hypothermia.

Kaytee Marston, a registered nurse in the burn unit at University of Colorado Hospital Metro Denver Campus, often takes care of homeless patients who come in with frostbite due to exposure. On average, in Marston’s experience, homeless patients tend to come in with significantly worse frostbite damage overall. And once frostbite infects the bone, the next move is often amputation.

“It puts them in a more vulnerable situation when we amputate,” Marston said. “It’s really hard, and although they’re able to receive food and shelter in the hospital, you can tell they really don’t want to be there.”

Marston’s unit works closely with social workers to try and place patients experiencing homelessness in shelters that will properly care for wounds after discharge. However, a lack of resources often prevents people from receiving care and leads to a cycle of health issues.

“It doesn’t really help them, nor their new wound, if they go right back onto the street,” Marston said. “One time we discharged someone and had everything set up for them, but they just had no other resources to get better and got too drunk and fell asleep outside and got frostbite again.”

Maggie Dines, a licensed social worker who works with Marston at UCHealth, often works with homeless patients discharged from the burn unit. And although there are a variety of partnerships with various shelters, it can be difficult to find homeless shelters that will help take proper care of patients after discharge. As a direct result of current legislation, some patients who are homeless may have criminal records or legal trouble that make rehabilitation even more difficult.

“I can think of multiple instances off the top of my head where people are stuck in a court system because they have tickets for camping, which you know, adds this whole other element of now they have criminal records, which is going to make it harder for them to get housing and the like,” Dines said.

“My gut feeling tells me these people are trying to survive, and by making it harder for them to do that, we’re creating more barriers for them,” Dines said in reference to current legislation.

Another side of the issue is the prevalent stigma that surrounds individuals who experience homelessness. They are often blamed for their situation and dehumanized. They are viewed as lazy, uneducated and illiterate. Oftentimes, people experiencing homelessness are also assumed to be addicts or to have mental illnesses, which are conditions that already carry their own stigmas.

Those who work alongside Denver’s homeless population, however, say they understand the multitude of complex reasons that lead to a person’s current situation.

Youth at Urban Peak, for example, often come to the organization for three reasons: family instability, systems involvement — meaning the child welfare system or the juvenile justice system — and LGBTQ discrimination. Other reasons underlying youth and adult homelessness include job loss, eviction, addictions and disabilities, to name a few.

Nicole Tschetter, the public relations and media specialist at Denver Rescue Mission, stressed the importance of viewing the homeless with compassion. This is one of the first steps toward change.

“Everyone we serve has a unique story, and everyone is in the position that they’re in for so many different reasons,” Tschetter said. “So, it’s just keeping an open mind and not placing that judgment on someone you see on the street.”

By removing some of the stigmas, Tschetter and Christina Carlson both believe that people become more understanding and empathetic towards those experiencing homelessness.

“When I talk about homelessness, it’s a big picture that is a complex problem,” Carlson said. “What I hope is that we don’t make the solutions so complex that they are at odds with each other.”

Going beyond resources and complex solutions, Carlson emphasized tapping into the human condition to help inspire change.

“It’s going to take a multiple approach, and it’s going to take time and some patience,” Carlson said. “We need compassion and empathy for our fellow human beings, that’s a big piece of it.”

Contact CU Independent Copy Editor Bri Barnum at brittany.barnum@colorado.edu.

Bri Barnum

Bri Barnum is a copy editor at the CU Independent. Originally from Minneapolis, she is a Senior majoring in journalism and Russian studies. When not editing articles, you can find her traveling, taking pictures and watching an obscene amount of documentaries.

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