Centennial City Council approves urban camping ban unanimously

Homelessness advocates, residents push for, against ban at public hearing

Posted 7/9/19

The reasons why or why not to ban homeless camping on city-owned property added up to a conversation the Centennial City Council barely wanted to have.

 

Nearly a dozen activists, …

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Centennial City Council approves urban camping ban unanimously

Homelessness advocates, residents push for, against ban at public hearing

Posted

The reasons why or why not to ban homeless camping on city-owned property added up to a conversation the Centennial City Council barely wanted to have.

Nearly a dozen activists, residents and other concerned locals vented pleas to help the homeless — and to keep them away from their neighborhoods — at the council’s July 8 meeting in a rare show of division among a Centennial council audience. But the councilmembers themselves provided no debate and nearly no expression of qualms or praise for the proposal they passed unanimously.

“This ordinance is about protecting the safety of our citizens — period,” Councilmember Kathy Turley said in what amounted to the only opinion publicly expressed by the nine-member council about the ban.

After a small number of campsites caught the city’s attention amid the suburban Denver metro area’s ongoing homelessness issue, the council began considering a ban that opponents said doesn’t address the underlying issues that lead people to sleep outside.

“I currently work a full-time job making $17.25 an hour, and I can’t afford the rent for a one-bedroom in this city,” Chris Davis, a 26-year-old who grew up in Centennial, said during the public hearing before the council’s vote at the meeting.

Average rent for an apartment in Centennial is $1,600, according to RentCafe.com, a site that tracks real estate trends. Median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Denver is about $1,100, and in nearby Aurora, it’s $1,300, according to ApartmentList.com, a similar site.

Kristin Mallory, chair of the Arapahoe County Democratic Party, argued that Denver’s 2012 camping ban is a “failed policy” that pushed people experiencing homelessness into places such as Aurora and Centennial. A few speakers before her, Centennial resident Nick Swanson asked, “How can we consciously penalize people trying to survive if we as the government are not offering them alternatives?”

“Sleeping outside is often a last choice,” Swanson told the council.

Voicing concerns about safety, about half the speakers supported the ban. Among them was Centennial resident Karen Shaw, who said an encampment of tents and three bicycles sat near her home along East County Line Road. Another supporter said she helps the homeless but doesn’t think allowing camping is the answer.

“I think that (others are) calling this ‘criminalizing homelessness,’ and I think that’s making us look like bad guys because we don’t want us to have this mess around us and feel unsafe,” Pat Benhmida said.

Others compared an encampment to a “bicycle junk yard,” with one man saying he doesn’t want the city to become like an “Arapahoe County dump” that once sat in the area. One woman said she saw syringes near an encampment in Centennial in the past.

Opponents of the ban claimed it could open the city up to lawsuits, and they also took issue with the possibility of a $2,650 fine for camping. But that’s the city’s maximum — an $80 fine would be more common, said Bob Widner, city attorney. Under the camping ban ordinance, a person can’t receive a ticket before an officer notifies them that their camping is illegal — they’d be told to “move along” first, Widner added.

Glenn Thompson, public safety bureau chief for the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office, said the enforcement is a “last resort.”

“Really, what this allows us to do is to approach folks on public property that may need resources, check on them and direct them to the proper resources they need,” Thompson said.

In those situations, deputies can refer a person to county, state or faith-based resources based on needs for housing, food assistance or substance-use counseling, for example, Thompson added via email.

To the sheriff’s office’s knowledge, Centennial and nearby unincorporated Arapahoe County areas don’t have homeless shelters, Thompson said. Most of the metro area’s shelter locations are in Denver.

‘Proactive’ approach

Following reports of small camps in the city’s rights-of-way this year, city staff turned their attention to the issue of camping on city-owned property. Centennial has not seen “large encampments to-date,” but a city staff memorandum said such camping “poses potential significant impacts to the citizens and to the city’s ability to reserve city property for its primary purposes.”

The sheriff’s office was recently made aware of camps along East County Line Road between South Broadway and South Clarkson Street, the High Line Canal also between those two streets, and near East Dry Creek Road and South Colorado Boulevard.

Reports of camping at those locations came in late spring, Thompson said. Centennial has seen a few reports of camping before from time to time, said Allison Wittern, city spokesperson.

The sheriff’s office hasn’t noticed an increase in reports of camping in 2019 compared to recent years across its entire service region — including Centennial and nearby unincorporated county areas — according to Special Operations Capt. Kenneth McKlem.

“It doesn’t seem as though we are seeing any more or any fewer of these types of calls over the past five years,” Thompson added.

Centennial considered the ban in an effort to be proactive in case camping on city-owned property becomes more prevalent, Wittern said.

Piece of the puzzle

Some suburbs south of Denver have taken steps to address homelessness. Although exact numbers are difficult to come by because homeless populations are counted generally by county, not city, officials have said Englewood’s homeless population has grown over the past few years.

Englewood has joined Littleton and Sheridan — its neighbors along the South Platte River and major roads — in searching for a solution to homelessness, forming the Tri-Cities Homelessness Policy Group. The body, which meets monthly, includes city officials, police and community organizations and began in the fall. It aims to study resources and federal, state and regional funding that may be available to help tackle the issue.

Centennial has not communicated with surrounding cities on what the potential effects of a Centennial camping ban would be for them, Wittern said in June.

Advocacy groups for the homeless have said Denver’s 2012 camping ban pushes homeless individuals to nearby suburbs. When asked if Centennial expects that its ban would have that effect on surrounding cities, Wittern said, “The city has no comment on this and does not want to speculate.”

Denver, Colorado Springs and Boulder prohibit camping on public property, according to the Centennial staff report. Parker approved a camping ban in June 2018.

During Denver’s municipal election in May, voters considered an initiative that would have overturned the city’s camping ban. Known as “Right to Survive,” Initiative 300 was turned down by 81% of voters, or about 146,600.

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