Denver Voters Deny Homeless the 'Right to Survive.' Here's What That Means.

Initiative 300, a first-of-its-kind ballot measure that even divided advocates for the homeless, failed on Tuesday by an overwhelming margin.
by | May 7, 2019 AT 9:58 PM
Denver's 2012 anti-camping law made it illegal to sleep on the street. (AP/David Zalubowski)

Last Updated May 8 at 8:22 a.m. ET

 

SPEED READ:

  • Denver voters rejected Initiative 300, dubbed by supporters the "Right to Survive."
  • The ballot measure was the first of its kind.
  • It would have overturned Denver's anti-camping ordinance, which many cities have.
 

On Tuesday, Denver voters were the first in the country to weigh in on whether homeless people should have what supporters say is the "right to survive." They responded with an overwhelmingly no.

As of 1 a.m., 83 percent voted against Initiative 300. The loss means that a citywide ban on camping -- and wearing a blanket in public -- will remain in place, effectively criminalizing homeless people who live in tents and on the streets.

Denver's vote came in the wake of a ruling that is making cities and states reevaluate anti-camping ordinances. In September, the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that Boise, Idaho’s policy of issuing citations to people for sleeping on the street if they have nowhere else to go was "cruel and unusual punishment." The decision had a ripple effect across the West. Olympia, Wash.; Portland, Ore.; San Francisco; and Sacramento, Calif., have all ceased enforcing their anti-camping laws.

At the state level, legislators in California, Oregon and Colorado have tried and failed to pass "right to rest" bills that would override local laws that effectively criminalize homelessness, Stateline reported.

Supporters of those bills hoped Denver's vote would inspire other cities to hold their own. "We hopefully may not have to run another statewide initiative," Colorado state Rep. Jovan Melton told Stateline before the vote. "We may be able to go just city by city to deal with this." But the overwhelming failure of the measure may hamper efforts elsewhere.

The controversial camping ban even causes fractures among homeless advocates.

The city's agency that works to reduce homelessness supported keeping the ban in place. Its director, Chris Conner, argued that eliminating the ban would cut some homeless people off from services they need. Under the ban, police are required to connect homeless people they encounter with social services. They only issue a ticket or make an arrest if the person refuses services or refuses to move.

But Denver Homeless Out Loud, which gathered the signatures to put Initiative 300 on the ballot, objected to the idea that the ban reduces homelessness. It merely moves homeless people out of sight and out of mind.

"When people are seen, there isn’t this illusion that you can just push them out of homelessness," Terese Howard of Denver Homeless Out Loud told Colorado Public Radio.

The city’s business community threw its support behind the ban, contributing more than $2 million to the campaign to keep it in place. That dwarfed the amount of money raised by supporters of overturning the ban: As of mid-April, backers of Initiative 300 had collected just $54,000 in campaign contributions.

Advocates of Initiative 300 argued that overturning camping bans forces cities to focus on finding actual solutions to homelessness. Most cities don't have enough beds to shelter their homeless population. San Francisco, for example, can only accommodate less than 60 percent of its chronically homeless. And many can't or don't want to go to shelters because their rules don't allow people who are drunk or high and don't allow people to take their pets or stay with their significant others.

"Our end goal isn’t to protect the right of homeless people to sleep on the streets. That’s not a real win for them or for us," Eric Tars, legal director for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, told Huffington Post. "We win ... when homeless people aren’t homeless but in housing."