Right to Rest Act, take four

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Joel Dyer

For the fourth year in a row, Colorado lawmakers are considering the Right to Rest Act, a piece of legislation aimed at local policies around the state that prohibit people experiencing homelessness to sit, camp, eat and have their property in public spaces. After an initial postponement to accommodate possible amendments, the bill will be presented at a House Local Government Committee hearing on March 14 that is expected to take considerable time. (Last year it lasted more than 10 hours.) 

As in past attempts, getting the bill through the legislature is an uphill battle for the homeless advocates and legislative sponsors behind it. Each year, the proposed bill has failed to make it out of committee and to a vote in the House. That’s to say nothing of getting it passed in the more conservative Senate. But that isn’t stopping the bill’s supporters.

“Homelessness is a systemic problem that is caused by our housing market and our economy and that the answer to addressing the widespread crisis of homelessness in our nation is not to try to criminalize folks and move folks around, but is to give people basic rights and dignity and bring back actual attainable housing for poor people in our country,” says Terese Howard, organizer with Denver Homeless Out Loud and Western Regional Advocacy Project, which helped draft the bill.

Sponsored by Democratic Representatives Joe Salazar (Thornton) and Jovan Melton (Aurora), the Right to Rest Act is commonly known as the Homeless Bill of Rights. Similar campaigns are currently making their way through Oregon and California. The goal is to shift the focus and resources away from criminalizing homelessness and toward adequate solutions like affordable housing.

“It would mean that folks who are living outside in Boulder would no longer be going through this ineffective and harmful and expensive cycle of streets to jail, streets to jail, streets to jail, as is currently the case,” Howard says. “It would mean that the resources that are currently being spent on that could be redirected towards actual solutions like housing. And it would mean that statewide folks would not be being pushed from city to city to city, but that folks would be able to settle down in a city of their liking and do the best that they can to further themselves — wherever is best for them, not wherever they are trying to get away from police enforcement.”

Critics claim cities like Boulder, which have policies such as the camping and smoking bans in public areas, specifically target and criminalize the homeless population. While the City maintains its position that these policies are necessary for public safety, they aren’t without “collateral consequences,” says Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle, who isn’t taking an official position on the Right to Rest Act. When people are ticketed for things like camping or smoking in public, they often end up in jail, unable and/or failing to pay the fine or show up in court.

“The jail is crowded. It’s expensive. It doesn’t change their behavior. It doesn’t do anything to enhance public safety,” Pelle says. “So it (criminalizing homelessness with policies like the camping ban) doesn’t accomplish anything other than cost the taxpayers a bunch of money.

“That’s the issue I have,” Pelle continues. “The answer, I don’t know. It’s really complicated.”

The City of Boulder has opposed the Right to Rest Act from the beginning, “from a very fundamental, home rule, local control perspective,” says Carl Castillo, policy advisor for the City of Boulder. “When we talk about regulating our parks and open space and how we deal with public safety issues, we strongly feel those are decisions that should be made by the local governments or elected officials.”

Although in years past staff has lobbied at the capital against the bill, more recently the City has taken a more “passive” approach, Castillo says, while also revamping homeless services in collaboration with the rest of Boulder County.

“We think it’s ironic that some of the cities that are being most targeted by this bill are the ones that are doing the most to help the homeless, at least ones attempting to through a variety of services,” Castillo says.

Sandra Seader, assistant city manager for the City of Longmont, says her City Council has yet to take an official position on the bill and probably won’t unless it passes committee and goes to a House vote. In the meantime, the community services department is working “to try and educate the bills’ sponsors on the work that is being done and why this is sort of contrary to that,” she says. Longmont wants to be involved in the process, not seen as adversarial to the bill from the get-go. The most recent round of amendments have yet to be made public and neither legislative sponsor responded to questions prior to press time. Seader says that if the final draft does go against the principle of home rule and “restrict and go against the things that the council is doing in order to aid people who are struggling with homelessness,” then Longmont would most likely oppose the bill as well.

Regardless of the efforts of cities, Howard says the point of the bill isn’t to increase “quote-unquote services,” nor will the presence of such services exempt jurisdictions from an “appropriate and adequate housing” provision that could allow certain places to maintain their public safety ordinances. “Not shelter beds, not mats on a floor, not warehouses where people can be stuffed as if that is some sort of a housing option,” she says.

Despite opposition from local governments and lawmakers, Howard remains hopeful the legislation will pass, if not this year, then sometime soon.

“It’s a humanity and a moral and a justice issue,” she says. “And until they (lawmakers) can realize that we are going to fight. This is the strongest legislation protecting the rights of people surviving outside and we’re going to continue with the long-haul struggle.”

More Info: Right to Rest Act hearing. 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 14, Colorado State Capitol, room 271. 200 E. Colfax Ave., Denver.