You try to avoid the encampments in downtown Denver, along the Platte, and around the metro area. If you happen to be passing by on foot, the squalor overwhelms you — the tents and makeshift lean-tos cobbled together from boxes, boards and carpet remnants. They’re in parks where office workers used to have lunch in warmer weather; on public rights of way spilling over onto the sidewalk, blocking passersby.
You find the people in and around them off-putting. Many appear drunk or high or otherwise disoriented; some are rowdy and quarreling with one another, even coming to blows, and some are asleep or passed out. Inevitably, some of them approach you for money. Some harass you.
You are repulsed by the stench. Mounds of trash everywhere; scraps of food and food containers; human waste.
And you find yourself feeling guilty. You’ve always been told you are supposed to feel compassion for the homeless — and, in general, you do. You even have taken blankets to your local shelter or maybe have volunteered at a soup kitchen.
But you can’t grasp why this particular slice of the homeless population feels free to take over, camp on, and defile cherished public spaces that are supposed to belong to all of us.
You don’t doubt they need help — rehab, for starters, as well as mental health services in some cases — but you can’t see how it helps them at all to let them freely live out the destructive and dangerous lifestyle that got them where they are.
Besides, isn’t there already an extensive community network of public-private partnerships to shelter, long-term house, rehabilitate and job-train the the homeless? And didn’t Denverites overwhelmingly pass a sales-tax hike on the ballot just last fall to spend another $40 million a year in public funds on such assistance? Perhaps you even voted for it.
Stop feeling ashamed. You have every right to want the so-called camps shut down and cleaned up; to reclaim your parks and streets and other public venues for the whole community.
Yes, you can care about the homeless and want what’s best for them — and also want an end to their camping.
Which is why we cheer Denver City Hall for continuing to carry out sweeps of the camps. It announced this week it has scheduled two more, providing the seven-day, advance notice required by the latest court order on the subject. As we noted last week in the wake of that ruling, local governments may feel apprehensive about clearing out the camps in the face of the politicized lawsuits filed to obstruct them. We urge authorities to press on with the sweeps so long as they comply with parameters set by court rulings.
It is fundamental to understand how distinct the people who camp out on the streets are from the rest of the homeless population.
In a commentary published in The Gazette last month, Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman recounted the week he recently spent incognito on the streets among the homeless in Aurora and Denver. He stayed in shelters as well as slept in encampments. He observed, “there was never overlap between those who stayed at the shelters and those who stayed at the encampments.”
What draws the campers — given the available space and wide-ranging services at area shelters? It isn’t economic need because the community stands ready to help them in that regard. Inordinately often, it’s drug and alcohol abuse, which isn’t permitted in the shelters. Coffman observed “The drug of choice at the encampments is predominantly crystal methamphetamine, and I often saw young people injecting it and smoking it in clear glass pipes. No one that I talked to in the encampments expressed a desire to change, leave the encampments, or accept the outreach efforts made by city workers and volunteers. Whenever I came close to questioning those choices, they abruptly stopped talking.”
It’s time for the rest of the community to demand its rights in this debate. It is time, as well, to push back at the activist groups and opportunistic politicians claiming to speak for the campers. To advocate and litigate as they do for a presumed “right” to camp is to condemn the chronic, hardcore homeless to the worst possible fate, i.e., a street life of addiction, violence, crime, ill-health and assorted other pathologies leading too often to premature death.
The camps are obviously bad for the community; they’re even worse for the campers. Make no mistake, those who want to close the camps hold the moral high ground.