Dehumanizing the Dehumanized: Denver’s Urban Camping Ban

I am officially ashamed to say that I live in Denver.

Don’t get me wrong.  I really like living here.  There are so many cool people, and the mountains . . . oh the mountains!  Plus, there’s some cool activism going on that I love being a part of.  Oh, and the weather is great!

The politics?  Not so much.  Earlier this week, the Republicans in the Colorado state legislature killed a bill that would allow civil unions for lesbian and gay couples.  As I usually do with CO state politics, I was able to say, “Well, CO state politics are shitty, but at least I live in the progressive bastion of Denver!”

Except that only a few hours later, Denver did this:

Whaaat?  Seriously?  In essence, it is now illegal to be homeless in Denver.

Now, if the “Urban Camping Ban” had been a part of a wider effort to actually offer services that get the homeless on their feet and off the street, I would probably be for it, but that is in no way the reason or rhetoric around why it was passed.  Advocates, primarily business owners in downtown Denver and our hyper-pro-business mayor, claim that the blight of homeless people sleeping in public places is bad for business.  Essentially, “People don’t want to come to my store when there are icky people around!”  Despite that wildly dehumanizing rhetoric, the ban was passed.

There are two main problems that I see in the legislation.  The first is simply practical.  Where are homeless folks to go if they can’t sleep in parks, sidewalks, or other public spaces?

A simple analysis of numbers that was ignored by the city council in their approval of the ban reveals that there are simply not enough beds in shelters to provide every homeless person in the city a space to sleep even if they have an interest in seeking services!  Was there a budget rider attached to the legislation to pay for an increase in homeless shelters?  No . . . God forbid that we actually give the folks we’re kicking off the streets a place to go!

Further, the legislation states that police who confront a homeless person who is sleeping on the street must first try to find them a place to sleep.  If that cannot be done (which is highly unlikely considering the lack of beds in the city), the person can be cited and/or arrested.  Yup . . . You can be arrested and can face criminal charges simply for not having a place to sleep at night.  Plus, the ban doesn’t offer any extra support to police who must do the enforcement.  This is only likely to increase instances of conflict with the police (and, by extension, police brutality) for a population that is already significantly more likely to experience violence.

The second problem with the Denver Urban Camping Ban is less logistical and in many ways more serious: the ban further dehumanizes a population that already few considered human.

If you asked the average person about the homeless, you would likely get a response of empathy mixed with pity or you’d get resentment and condemnation.  Either you’d hear, “We really should do more to support those dear souls!” or you’d hear, “They really should just get a job!”

What’s surprising about these two responses is that while they express very different sentiments consciously, they actually are likely operating from the same place subconsciously.  Our society has effectively caste homeless people into such oblivion that our brains do not even consider them to be human beings.  In their work with Princeton’s Center for the Study of Brain, Mind, and Behavior, Dr. Lasana T. Harris and Dr. Susan T. Fiske found that at a subconscious level, most people see homeless people and drug addicts as the object equivalent of an overflowing toilet or vomit.  Further, this isn’t necessarily happening at a conscious level!  When we see a homeless person, the part of our brain that should light up when it sees a human being does not light up.

Why, then, are the homeless more likely to experience violence and police brutality?  Well, if the person carrying out the violence isn’t, at a conscious or subconscious level, acknowledging that the person they are hurting is indeed a person, it makes it a hell of a lot easier to commit violence against them.  Why on earth should we extend further services that deal with the root causes of homelessness?  That would be too expensive, and we already know that big business interests don’t want to pay the tax burden they are already supposed to carry!  Let’s just say that they can’t sleep within our city limits unless they have shelter and a bed!  That’ll get those icky people off our stoops.

The problem with the “Denver Urban Camping Ban,” then, is not just that it will hurt homeless people in very real ways but that it will further dehumanize the already dehumanized.

The Denver City Council should be ashamed, and each and every business that came out in support of this ban should be boycotted.  Stay tuned . . . I’m working on a list, but here’s a start:

Boycott These Businesses for Their Support of the Denver Urban Camping Ban

Palm Restaurant – 1672 Lawrence Street

Snooze AM Eatery – 2262 Larimer Street

Subway – 409 16th Street (and arguably all Subway restaurants, as the district manager spoke out in favor of the ban)

Rockmount Ranch Wear – 1625 Wazee Street

Sage Hospitality was a vocal supporter of the ban.  Here are a few businesses under that umbrella to boycott:

The Corner Office - 1401 Curtis Street

Second Home Kitchen + Bar – 150 Clayton Lane

Courtyard Denver Downtown – 934 16th Street

Residence Inn Denver City Center – 1725 Champa Street

The Oxford Hotel – 1600 17th Street

The Curtis – a Doubletree by Hilton – 1405 Curtis Street

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7 thoughts on “Dehumanizing the Dehumanized: Denver’s Urban Camping Ban

  1. I just “love” how they make it sound like the newest vacation trend….”urban camping”. Are you kidding me??!

  2. I’m totally in. I’ll never support these business again. Some of whom I was a big fan of. I’m also out on Hi Rise Bakery off Larimar by the ball park. Food tastes bad when it’s made with contempt.

  3. Heather’s comments are right on.

    Lets see, folks Urinating and Defecating in our public places is about as incongruous with Camping as it can get! Sadly, the homeless issue is extremely complex; and no real comprehensive solutions seem to exist yet, in Denver or nationwide. Many of these folks not only have substance abuse / addiction issues but are also mentally ill. Yet Denver’s ridiculous parking meter “solution” is clearly a joke and no answer. At least one very good program for getting the homeless off the streets is Denver’s STEP 13; it works and it amazingly it uses Zero tax dollars!

    Ok, as for the idea of a boycott — oh Please. I love enjoying a great meal and drink at Snooze. The Palm is one of the finest restaurants in all Denver. Why would anyone want to have to deal with the homeless in trying to frequent these nice places? Instead of trying to close them down just so there could be more dark and decaying parts of Denver, I say frequent them regularly and help them be more successful; then help them realize they need to participate in the fixing the homeless problem. Since there profits will be up with strong business, they’ll be in a better position to financially help….. True Civic Engagement with a real Win-Win!

  4. Just this week, CBS ran an under spot on the homeless —- seems many of them are actively selling Tar Heroin and Crack!!! Yet another reason they have no place in our fine City!

    • Which is why homeless folks should be dehumanized and caste out rather than given services that might actually help deal with the root problems, right? All you are doing is pushing these folks off on another community with attitudes like “they have no place in our fine city!”

      Not in my backyard, right?

  5. Most of the homeless ended up in their current situation because of drugs, and drinking. Others because of criminal activity. They lie to Social Security Disability and tell them they are mental cases, or that their backs hurt. Most are using this money for drinking, or drugs. When they run out of their monthly checks; they Pan-Handle, or abuse what resourses our cities have to offer. Stop playing wet nurse to them!!! They will then either migrate somewhere else, or try to use our limited resources to get a job, then pay back what they took from us tax payers. Life is what you make it.

    • Thank you, Savage (your name borders on ironic), for perfectly proving my point. Perhaps the most important part of my post was highlighting the ways that dehumanizing language and actions make it possible that many do not even recognize the humanity of homeless people at a subconscious level.

      So let’s take a look at the numbers behind your generalizations. Of the approximately 3 million homeless people in the U.S., 40% are veterans (http://www.pbs.org/now/shows/526/homeless-facts.html), most of whom are struggling with problems like PTSD or serious injury yet were unable to access important services from the VA. Of the general homeless population, you are right that many struggle with drug addiction: 68% struggle with an addiction to drugs or alcohol. Despite your claims that they seem to lie about mental illness, at least 38% struggle with mental disorders (25% of which are serious mental disorders such as schizophrenia). Some studies indicate that there are 1.5 million children who struggle with homelessness, with 40% of them being children under the age of 6 (http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_11874970).

      My point here is that there are specific faces and cases behind these numbers despite your desire to paint with a broad brush. Further, does the fact that someone struggles with debilitating drug or alcohol addiction make them less human or less worthy of help? Does the fact that someone suffers from a serious mental illness make them less human? Is helping children who might sleep on the street tonight simply playing “wet nurse” to them?

      The point of an organized society, in my humble opinion, is to be sure that no one falls through the cracks. By that measure, the U.S. tends to be an utter failure, and much of that comes from the selfish “my tax dollars” mentality that you put forward. “Your tax dollars” are in fact only yours in the sense that it is your duty to pay into a system that is meant to pay for the defense and service of your fellow citizen.

      Except, I guess, if those fellow citizens are homeless…

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