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COLUMN: Right to Rest not the right solution

By: RACHEL STOVALL
February 1, 2018 Updated: February 1, 2018 at 4:05 am
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Have you heard about the Colorado Right to Rest Act?

This bill introduced by Denver's Joe Salazar and Jovan Melton establishes these rights for homeless people: the right to use and move freely in public spaces, to rest in public spaces, to eat or accept food in any public space where food is not prohibited, to occupy a legally parked vehicle and to have a reasonable expectation of privacy of one's property.

Sounds reasonable. But let's read further.

In this bill, public space means "any property that is owned or leased by a state or local government entity or any property upon which there is an easement for public use".

By this definition of public space, this bill could turn any easement that is considered "public space" into a homeless camp. So, instead of the current state of homelessness with panhandlers on many corners, we could have homeless campers on many corners.

The Right to Rest proposal has been struck down three times since 2015. And rightly so.

I heard that the language has been softened from the original version. This bill took out private civil lawsuits against businesses that kick out people experiencing homelessness. It also changed the previous bills' wording that focused specifically on the rights of the homeless - rather than the rights of all people.

Supporters say the law would stop law enforcement agencies and municipalities across Colorado from "criminalizing" homelessness by issuing citations or arresting anyone who rests, sleeps and eats in public spaces.

Critics say the bill goes too far in restricting municipalities' regulation of their homeless populations without offering added services, like funding for shelters, in return.

I would say, "Since when do politicians know what to do with homeless people?"

I spent this week at the Colorado Association of Psychologists - International Winter Symposium. This symposium is dedicated to bringing best practices to professionals who serve those with mental health or addiction issues. It was an awe-inspiring time among the foremost experts in the field.

I walked around asking opinions of the experts about this specific law. And I could not find a single therapist, probation officer, social worker, counselor or medical doctor who thought being allowed to camp outside on public easements was a good solution for homelessness. Most expressed extreme shock and dismay at the proposed law.

Apparently, this community of experts who work daily with homeless populations support mental health, medical and addiction treatment paired with housing as the main solution to homelessness.

There is no addiction or mental health treatment in the homeless campgrounds. And no supportive housing. Right to Rest does not seem like the right solution at all.

The city of Colorado Springs estimates the cost to serve one person experiencing chronic homelessness as $57,760 per year. That includes detoxification, medical treatment, police intervention, incarceration and emergency response. The chronically homeless, who impact downtown commerce the most, are disproportionately impacted by substance abuse and mental illness.

These same experts tell us that when we get folks inside supportive housing, including wraparound services, costs drop dramatically, up to as much as $30,000 annually.

HUD Secretary Ben Carson has also weighed in on Colorado solutions. After a visit to the Colorado Coalition to the Homeless and a tour of the medical, dental, vision, pharmacy and mental health services departments, all housed under one roof, Secretary Carson said, "This bolsters my argument that we can eradicate homelessness. We have the will and knowhow."

Solutions to homelessness always include: housing, medical treatment, mental health/addiction counseling, life skills training, financial literacy and employment assistance. These are expensive but effective solutions.

Right to Rest does not offer a single solution to homelessness. Shame on its authors for even proposing it.

We can keep from "criminalizing" homelessness without encouraging (or increasing it) like this bill does. It is time for laws that propose proven effective solutions for homelessness. It is time to support homeless citizens so that they can claim their lives back. We know what works in Colorado. Let's just do it.

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Rachel Stovall is a longtime community advocate and organizer. Also a fundraising, media and marketing consultant, Stovall is most known for singing with her dance band Phat Daddy and the Phat Horn Doctors.

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