Attorney Stan Garnett isn’t naive about homelessness. He’s on the board of Bridge House, a Boulder nonprofit that provides counseling, housing assistance and other needed services to the homeless and working poor of Boulder County.
He also served 10 years as Boulder County district attorney before joining the Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck law firm last year.
He counts himself among those who hope Denver’s Initiative 300, allowing urban camping, fails on May 7.
Why? Because he’s had experience with people in the throes of homelessness. He argues that doing away with basic rules of civil order, which is what 300 proposes, won’t solve the problem and very well may make it worse.
He knows because he’s been down this road before.
He pushed back a number of years ago when some factions in Boulder suggested that the DA’s office lay off the homeless population in Boulder County by not enforcing laws against camping in parks and sidewalks and public nuisance type of behaviors.
“I am really a believer that if you’re going to have any kind of civilized society, a city or state or community, you’ve got to have basic rules about what people can do or can’t do,” Garnett told me recently. “And those rules include things like where they can sleep, where they can go to the bathroom, how they interact with other people. Those issues have to be able to be enforced through criminal statutes through tickets or prosecution if there’s problems.”
“Fundamental to the folks who are propounding Initiative 300 is that that kind of regulation is improper. I think it will be a real problem for Denver and I hope that it fails.”
As district attorney, Garnett set up programs to aggressively prosecute criminals who victimized the homeless, especially women, who experience sexual assault and other crimes at much higher rates than men do.
It is notable that many of the organizations and people that are helping the homeless community the most are opposed to Initiative 300.
And many worry that language in the amendment could discourage aid workers from reaching out to help the homeless get off the streets.
“I think it’s possible that could happen,” Garnett said.
Steering the homeless into programs that help them get off the streets is more effective than throwing in the towel with blanket permission to camp out wherever they want.
“I do think having more programs, more access, more bathrooms, more effective shelters, food programs are all important. I think there’s enough resources to provide those services,” Garnett said.
“But we if end up dissipating all of our energy on this kind of a battle over whether someone has a right to sleep under whatever bridge they want, or whatever park they want to sleep in or next to whatever house they want to sleep, then we end up not really solving the problem.”
Also worrisome are the campaign tactics employed by fringe elements of the pro-300 movement, such as the targeting of 16th Street Mall restaurants with homeless encampments unless they publicly get behind Initiative 300.
I asked one of the 300 propponents recently, Ean Tafoya, about the tactics of Occupy Denver. He said it was a free speech issue, similar to the famous grape and lettuce boycotts of the 1960s and 1970s on behalf of migrant farmworkers.
But it’s really not. In those cases, the boycotts were trying to support the workers who, arguably, were being exploited by growers. In the case of Initiative 300, in which the boycotts are targeting downtown restaurants, what have they done to exploit the homeless? In fact, many support homeless food initiative and provide jobs for those who are trying to break out of their situation.
Garnett has a theory about that.
“I think that’s because the proponents know that their position [on 300] isn’t particularly compelling, it’s not very convincing with the people that live in Denver, so they are going to around that trying to create pressure on the restaurants and that is more analogous to blackmail,” Garnett said.
In the 1970s, in the suburban Chicago village of Skokie, controversy erupted and played out in the courts for years over plans by the National Socialist Party of America to stage a protest march in the community, home to many Jews, including many survivors of the Holocaust.
The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld arguments made by the American Civil Liberties Union that the neo-Nazis’ plans to March, however repugnant, was protected under the First Amendment to the Constitution. The march actually occurred in Chicago.
But what if the neo-Nazis had descended on a Jewish delicatessen and demanded that the owners support their demonstration, or they’d face harassment? That’s essentially what Occupy Denver is doing to downtown restaurants. It goes far beyond the constitutional right of public protest.
“The proponents of 300, … rather than engaging in the kind of vigorous protected debate, First Amendment kind of debate, that we love in this country, have bypassed that and engaged in certain kinds of business blackmail to try to force people to agree with them and paint that as a political victory,” Garnett said.
There are all kinds of valid reasons to say no to Initiative 300. Turning our parks and public rights of way and the street in front of your house into legal encampments for the homeless won’t address the very legitimate need to help homeless people with programs that actually help them improve their lives and get them off the streets.
Initiative 300 is an admission of failure, in my opinion. It tells the homeless, “We don’t think you can ever improve your situation beyond living on the street.”
Don’t let empathy get in the way of common sense.