Will the courts fine Murphy Robinson for taking down a suspected meth lab and sparing a Denver neighborhood the trauma of 30 or more propane tanks blowing sky high? Incredibly, his commendable and decisive action may have violated a federal court order. But Robinson, Denver’s no-nonsense public safety chief, had more pressing worries when he ordered city personnel to the scene the weekend before last: The place already was in flames, and authorities had to act fast.
Why would the courts seek to prevent police and firefighters from doing their duty to protect the public? Because the drug lab that had caught fire and was about to explode was in an illegal homeless camp north of Denver’s downtown. Last month, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower federal court order requiring Denver to give at least 48 hours' notice before taking down squatters’ camps — even when there are public health or safety concerns.
Never mind how, in this case, the fire could have taken out several city blocks, according to a report by Denver’s CBS Channel 4.
“This time we were lucky, next time we could be talking about how we dealt with the loss of life,” Robinson told Channel 4. “That is unacceptable to me … (we) have to find a better solution.”
Colorado does indeed need a better solution. Throughout its metropolitan areas along the Front Range, and as far west as Grand Junction, some homeless people persistently and stubbornly sidestep even the most diligent efforts by public agencies and private nonprofits to weave a social safety net. Robinson told Channel 4 the city had offered housing to those who had been camping near the ad hoc drug lab, but only one person accepted.
No matter how many beds are available at local shelters, there are some who refuse all help. Even Denver’s officially sanctioned, regulated and policed campsites for the homeless don't seem to attract them. They insist on spending the night — then days and weeks on end — at sites of their own choosing.
It begins as a couple of boxes and lean-tos, maybe a tattered tent; if left unchecked, it morphs in no time into a shantytown. The occupants squat on private lots if they can get away with it and often enough, on public property, where the courts have given them cover.
What lures them there when warm beds, warm meals, safe surroundings and a fresh start in the morning await them at a local shelter? Sadly, it’s a lot of the factors common to the lives of the chronically homeless — most notably drug and alcohol abuse, often aggravated by mental illness. Among them are also hardened criminals, including some who continue to run criminal enterprises from within the camps’ confines, like the drug operation shut down by Robinson. The encampments also alarmingly draw young drifters hooked on crystal meth or heroin.
The net impact on the surrounding community is depressingly familiar. The stench and squalor; the drunk and disorderly behavior; the aggressive panhandling of passersby. It all shuts down parks and walkways; it scares off shoppers at nearby retailers. We all know the scene all too well.
The impact on the campers themselves is even more troubling, though. Their “lifestyle” only serves to reinforce the very addictions and other behaviors that are undermining them. The camps also can be downright deadly for them:
- A 32-year-old homeless man was stabbed to death last fall in Englewood near a sprawling camp where he had been staying along the South Platte River.
- In November, a homeless man was found dead in a tent in another of the camps in north Denver, having succumbed to wounds police attributed to an assault earlier that day.
- Last year, The Gazette grimly chronicled the deaths of 87 homeless people during an 18-month-period in and around Colorado Springs. Many had died outdoors and among them, unsurprisingly, were residents of the encampments.
Coloradans have every right to demand their local authorities clear out homeless camps and refer their inhabitants to the many caring people and services waiting to help them. And they do need help — not free rein to wreak havoc upon one another or surrounding communities.
Denver’s Murphy Robinson unmistakably held the moral high ground with his actions the other day; the courts’ sophistry is a separate debate. His timely intervention obviously headed off imminent danger to an entire neighborhood. But he also was doing the occupants a favor.
In the big picture, the strongest case for closing the camps may center on the tragic effect they have on the tortured souls who dwell in them. If we fail to intervene, we are doing them a profound disservice.