On a frigid Denver day in November 2016, a homeless man was struggling to stay warm and survive the harsh winter weather. Jerry, a resident of the Denver area for 26 years, was a Marine Corps veteran who worked as an accountant and bookkeeper before a degenerative bone disease and the city's rent hikes forced him to live the past two years on the streets. He was huddling for warmth on the corner of 27th and Arapahoe when police came to take away his only tools for survival: a blanket and a tent. The police claimed they were confiscating Jerry's belongings as evidence he committed a crime. When did trying to survive become a crime?
Homelessness is a nationwide crisis, unfolding in communities across the country, including Denver. The most recent point-in-time count published by the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative - likely an undercount - records more than 5,000 people in the Denver Metro Area experiencing homelessness, defined as those who are living in emergency shelter or transitional housing, or living "unsheltered" on the street, in a car or tent, or under bridges. This number doesn't count the thousands more who sleep in motels, "doubled up" with friends or family due to economic insecurity, or in hospitals and jails.
As the number of people sleeping on sidewalks, resting on benches, and living in tents under bridges increases, some communities are raising concerns about public safety and sanitation. But making homelessness a crime does not make a community safer or healthier. Instead of creating additional barriers to survival, we should work to get these people off our streets by establishing a path to adequate, long-term housing.
In many cities, the cost of housing has risen dramatically, and wages have not kept up, leaving many just one health emergency, car repair, or missed paycheck away from losing their home. Those who do lose their homes have few options: in Denver, shelters in the area can support only 10 percent of the region's homeless, and 73 percent of homeless people surveyed by Denver Homeless Out Loud in 2013 were turned away from shelters due to lack of availability. As the homeless population becomes more visible, some city leaders are turning to the criminal justice system in a short-sighted effort to force people out of certain areas in Denver. People surviving on the streets are threatened with arrest and constant displacement, making it even more difficult to find stability. Jerry, who had to undergo the time-consuming and costly process of getting his tent and blanket back, was later tried and found guilty of violating Denver's anti-camping law and sentenced to community service. Others who have been arrested for the "crime" of surviving could find their future job or housing opportunities at risk, making it even more difficult to break the cycle of homelessness.
These damaging policies may be misguidedly attempting to comfort those of us who have homes and are disturbed by the reality in which many of our fellow community members find themselves. But the "out of sight, out of mind" policy of criminalizing homelessness only serves to undermine community safety. By enforcing "move along" policies and confiscating what little belongings homeless people have, law enforcement's time, money, and resources are wasted. Arrests typically take at least three hours - time that could be better spent preventing real crimes.
Instead of criminalizing people experiencing homelessness, let's redirect our efforts to increase the availability and affordability of housing and focusing law enforcement resources on the most serious crimes. We can encourage decriminalization with the passage of the Colorado Right to Rest Act and by repealing the existing destructive city laws that fail to address the root causes of homelessness. Our city and state have an opportunity to make a difference in ending homelessness through proven solutions - and to set an example for the nation. Let's not wait until next winter.
Carrie Roberts is a former detention officer and sheriff's deputy with the Colorado Department of Corrections. She is a speaker for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), a nonprofit group criminal justice professionals. Maria Foscarinis is the founder and executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, a legal advocacy organization.