- Nat Stein
- Jenkins, studying up on court proceedings, says most street folks can’t or don’t do their due diligence.
The city of Colorado Springs has already been called out for taking too punitive an approach to homelessness.
The report “Too High a Price,” out of the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law early last year, found that in the Springs, citations issued under ordinances outlawing behaviors associated with homelessness, like loitering, camping and solicitation, about doubled between 2010 and 2014 — a period that saw an overall decrease in municipal citations.
So when lead author and law professor Nantiya Ruan heard that citations pursuant to the Springs’ camping ban just kept climbing, and now total nearly six times what they did at the end of her study period, her response was “wow.”
“It’s disappointing that the city is still putting so many resources into more tickets,” she told the Independent. Assigning a dollar amount to “so many resources” is complicated, though in the report, she and her team approximated that Denver spends an average of $400 on policing and adjudicating per case. There, the maximum fine for violations of the urban camping ban is $999.
Here in the Springs, the maximum fine for violating the no-camping ordinances is $150. But can most people on the streets manage to pay even that?
“Heck no,” Jenkins says. Community service would be palatable, but somewhat pointless since Jenkins already spends his days picking up trash around the park.
Aside from the financial futility, Andi Van Gogh, director of the homeless outreach nonprofit Blackbird Outreach, says the barrage of tickets also has a destabilizing effect on people who are already in precarious situations. “Without a bus pass and carrying all your stuff, it can take some people all day to walk to court,” she says. “So, it becomes, ‘Do I eat today, or do I get this ticket straightened out?’”
There’s a fine legal line to tread too, Ruan says, pointing to cases out of Boise, Idaho, and Los Angeles, California, that considered whether those cities’ camping bans effectively punish a conduct — resting in public — or a status — having nowhere private to rest. The argument that the conduct is synonymous with the status fared well in both cases. In Jones v. Los Angeles, for example, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with homeless plaintiffs for the same reason courts have struck down laws that make it illegal just to be a drug addict: It’s cruel and unusual to punish someone for an involuntary status, even if that status produces behaviors the government is otherwise compelled to restrict. The behaviors that Los Angeles outlawed (sitting, lying and sleeping on public property), “[are] an unavoidable consequence of being human and homeless without shelter in the City of Los Angeles,” the majority opined.
The U.S. Department of Justice echoed that position in a 2015 amicus brief filed in Bell v. Boise, asserting that “If a person literally has nowhere else to go, then enforcement of the anti-camping ordinance against that person criminalizes her for being homeless.”
Ruan notes the importance of shelter access in both cases: that enforcement was only considered unlawful when shelters were demonstrably full — though, she says, “there are so many reasons people don’t participate in the shelter system.” She feels legislation, like Colorado’s thrice-failed “Right to Rest” Act, which would effectively nullify local laws like the camping ban, is a more efficient way to curb the criminalization of homelessness than taking all 351 laws like it in Colorado through the courts.
Locally, Colorado Springs City Council President Richard Skorman “[doesn’t] think there’s appetite” to revisit the no-camping, sit-lie or panhandling ordinances, but says Council is in the “information gathering” stage of otherwise addressing the housing crisis through rental assistance or incentivizing affordable housing.
The latest Point-in-Time count shows a gradual increase in the homeless population, whereas the enforcement increase is exponential. Yet the Colorado Springs Police Department has no other explanation for the uptick in tickets.
Officer Todd Rekar with the department’s award-winning Homeless Outreach (HOT) team, says for his unit, “It’s not our primary objective to write tickets ... it’s to get people to make use of resources.” In practice: “If all the beds are full, we won’t issue a ticket,” he says, “but if they refuse it, because it is a choice, then we take action.”
Advocates like Van Gogh are befuddled by that policy — given shelters are often full to the brim yet the tickets are still going out.
Spokespeople for the city’s two emergency shelters say beds are in high demand and, indeed, often full, yet they’re still able to take people in. According to Springs Rescue Mission’s Thomas Voss, the shelter tailored for chronically homeless adults like Jenkins upped its bed count in a recent renovation, but still ran about 40 percent above capacity this summer. “We accommodate everybody who comes through the door,” he says, “Just come in and we’ll find space.”
Admittedly, there is a physical limit to the shelter’s welcoming spirit. Voss says that last week, the first wet and nippy one of the fall, was the first time they turned people away for lack of space.
Van Gogh points out that not all barriers to shelter are physical. Take Jenkins. A mix-up and a mistake kept him out of the local shelters, but he hasn’t looked back, preferring the outdoors for the autonomy and kinship he finds there. Plus, he likes squirrels.
“I’m not trying to hide,” he says, “but the way it’s set up, I’m a criminal.”