Christer Pierce, center, lets Jackie Allen borrow his guitar so she can earn money for lunch. The Right to Rest Act would make it illegal for cities to ban sitting or standing in public spaces.
A bill creating “basic rights” for homeless people — including the ability to rest in public spaces, shelter oneself from the elements, occupy a parked car, and be free from discrimination based on housing status — has been introduced in the state House for the fifth time by Rep. Jovan Melton, an Aurora Democrat.
On Colorado Springs’ Westside, one neighborhood activist sounded the alarm.
Welling Clark, an active Republican who is the former president of the Organization of Westside Neighbors (and married to former County Commissioner Sallie Clark, who was appointed by President Donald Trump to serve as the Colorado Director for USDA Rural Development), sent out a mass email asking residents to contact their legislators to oppose the bill.
“Dear law-abiding citizen,” Clark wrote, “...If [the Right to Rest Act is] passed, those that claim to be ‘homeless’ (even those that homeless by choice) will be afforded rights that will impact your life.”
Though Clark seems to feel it’s more important now than ever to take action against the bill, its chances could be slim even with a trifecta of Democratic power in Colorado government. In previous years, opponents on both sides of the political spectrum have prevented the bill from ever reaching the floor, even in the House, which Democrats have controlled since 2012.
Detractors argue that it unfairly limits local governments’ ability to regulate activities like panhandling and loitering.
And Rep. Matt Gray (D-Broomfield), who chairs the Transportation and Local Government committee (where the bill has been assigned), voted against the bill two years in a row.
Notably, though, this year’s version is slightly different from previous iterations. The 2019 Right to Rest Act adds a section that would authorize $10 million over three years from the marijuana tax cash fund to help local housing authorities reduce their waiting lists.
Jurisdictions with waitlists of fewer than 50 people for at least three consecutive months would be exempt from the “right to rest” portion of the bill — meaning that they would be allowed to enforce bans (like Colorado Springs’ sit-lie ordinance) on resting in public spaces.
Colorado Springs is a far cry from exemption status. Here, demand for Section 8 vouchers is so high that the Colorado Springs Housing Authority only opens waitlists once a year for lottery pre-applications.
Such legislation could put the brakes on city policies that opponents — including the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, a main backer of the Right to Rest Act — have said effectively criminalize homelessness. In 2012, the ACLU filed a complaint in federal district court over a city ordinance banning panhandling downtown, resulting in an injunction that ultimately led to a repeal of that ban. Its legal director has also voiced concern about a recent ban on creekside camping.
Westside Cares, a nonprofit serving homeless people on Colorado Springs’ Westside, has not taken an official position on the Right to Rest Act, says CEO Kristy Milligan. (As a 501(c)3 organization, Westside Cares is somewhat limited in terms of advocacy.)
That said, Milligan adds in an email that “We generally applaud efforts aimed at decriminalizing homelessness, and this year’s bill goes a step beyond previous iterations... We track legislation like this closely, because we believe that early votes — and community engagement around these efforts — are useful barometers for determining the willingness of communities across Colorado to tackle poverty issues in meaningful ways.”
Asked to respond to Clark’s message, Milligan says Westside Cares prefers to work with neighborhood organizations than against them.
“I think there’s a lot of common ground around wanting safer neighborhoods,” she says. “We might disagree about how to get there.”
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