Sunday, May 13, 2012

Services, not just shelter, say homeless advocates

by Dave Felice
Discussing Denver's ban on “urban camping,” the police chief says nobody will be arrested just for being homeless; the city's homeless prevention program director says there's always some kind of shelter available; and an expert on homelessness says sustainable services cost less than temporary shelter.
Chief Robert White, Road Home Director Bennie Milliner, and Colorado Coalition for the Homeless education specialist B. J. Iacino joined six other panelists, including three from downtown neighborhoods, at a forum presented by Inter-Neighborhood Cooperation Saturday (5/12).  Speaking from the audience, Councilwomen Susan Shepherd (District 1) and Robin Kniech (At-Large) made impassioned comments opposing the ordinance.
Councilman Albus Brooks (District 8) says Denver's ordinance is different from other cities because it contains an “assessment of needs provision.”  Brooks, who sponsors the ordinance in Council, says there are “hundreds” of similar laws across the country.  “We are hoping to help the most vulnerable (homeless) people get the services they need,” says Brooks.
Judy Schneider of Ball Park Neighborhood says the ordinance allows police to contact more homeless people on the streets and make more service referrals.  She calls for a “thoughtful” approach to the problem, and says people will only get arrested for violating other laws.
Lower Downtown Neighborhood Association representative Josh Davies, also a downtown business owner, says the ordinance “forces everyone into more collaboration” and homelessness “is not someone else's problem.”  According to Davies, “if there were a simple solution, it would already be done.”
John Maslanik of Downtown Denver Residents Organization says he hopes the ordinance will be enforced “humanely” and improve conditions for everyone downtown.  “We remain vigilant of how the ordinance is enforced,” he says.  Maslanik adds that the ordinance is defective because it has no permanent funding provision.
Antony Hepplethwaite of Occupy Denver expresses continued opposition to “any attempt to criminalize homelessness.”  He says more people are homeless because of the country's economic recession, and calls for “compassionate approaches” to the problem.  Hepplethwaite contends Councilman Brooks and Mayor Michael B. Hancock “did not consult the homeless community” before preparing the ordinance.
“My fear is that the law will be interpreted differently on the streets (and) compromise is difficult when one person has more power over another,” says Benjamin Donlon, a panelist who is homeless.  “Actions are sometimes different from words.”  In response, Chief White reminded Donlon that he has the chief's private phone number.
B. J. Iacino, Director of Education and Advocacy for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, says there are more people homeless today than during the Great Depression of the 1930s.  She says housing solutions can actually save money and that a “punitive first step” such as the ordinance, is not warranted.  “The ultimate service we need is affordable housing,” says Iacino, noting that police are moving from a protective role to one of enforcement under the ordinance.
“Outreach and sheltering are only short term remedies,” says Denver's Road Home Director Bennie Milliner.  “We need to put people into housing.”  Milliner also emphasizes that there is always some kind of shelter available.  “If we need to find a place for someone who needs shelter, we will find a place,” declares Milliner.
Hepplethwaite says the lack of public toilet facilities is “dehumanizing.”  Donlon suggests the city install self-cleaning public restrooms with a limited time occupancy as some European cities have done.
Several times during the forum, Police Chief White reiterated that an individual would not be arrested just for violating the camping ordinance.  White says police would only arrest someone if there were an outstanding warrant for the individual or the person violated some other law.  This led some in the audience to question the need for the ordinance.
Inter-Neighborhood Cooperation represents about half of Denver's Registered Neighborhood Organizations.  About 60 people attended the INC forum.


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