Homeless people in Colorado may soon be able to sleep in public without being subjected to police harassment if a new bill discussed Wednesday in the state's legislature comes to pass.
The bill — dubbed the "Homeless Persons' Bill of Rights" — is sponsored by Democratic Representatives Joe Salazar and Jovan Melton, along with Senator John Kefalas. According to the draft legislation, current Colorado laws "result in people in Colorado being criminally punished for doing what any person must do to survive."
The legislators initially introduced the bill in March. It aims to ensure homeless people the right to move freely without discrimination, and to rest, eat, accept food, and maintain privacy over their belongings.
Local laws in Colorado currently make sleeping, eating, and loitering in public arrestable offenses. According to the proposed bill, if these essential rights are violated, homeless people will have the option to seek civil claims and potentially receive up to $1,000 per violation, the bill states.
The bill was proposed just weeks after a report surveyed nearly 500 homeless people in 10 Colorado cities to look at how homelessness has been treated as a criminal activity throughout the state. According to a University of Colorado Denver report, 70 percent of those surveyed had been ticketed for activities relating to homelessness. In addition, 90 percent reported police harassment, while 36 percent said they had been arrested for a crime of homelessness.
"In Boulder, city officials have put homeless people on trial for using a backpack pillow as a form of 'shelter,' since it is used to keep one's head from touching the ground," Tony Robinson, who authored the report noted. "In Grand Junction, officials have locked public bathrooms and shut down water fountains in downtown parks so as to discourage homeless people from coming to the area. In Durango, a peaceful street guitar player was ticketed due to having his guitar case open to accept donations."
Ray Lyall, a 55-year-old member of local outreach coalition Denver Homeless Out Loud, told VICE News he's been homeless for a year and a half after working in construction. "I beat myself up, I've worked all my life. My back is shot, my knees are shot, my legs are shot, my arms are shot. I am just falling apart," Lyall said.
Lyall said he mostly sleeps on the streets since shelters are not the most "ideal" place to go, and claimed that either way there is not enough free space in Denver's shelters. He said the police keep him awake all night.
"There are just not enough beds. They [police officers] just say 'Well, we can't put you in the shelter, you're going to have to move,'" Lyall said. "That happens all night long. I'll be laying somewhere and I'll be woken up every couple of hours being told to move 'you can't stay here,' and it's not like I am sleeping in anyone's doorway. I am not in front of anybody's garage."
Colorado is not alone in criminalizing homelessness. A 2014 report released by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (NLCHP) titled "No Safe Place" found a 43 percent increase in cities across the US that have banned lying down or sleeping in some public areas since 2011. The report also found that arresting or ticketing homeless people for such incidents is ineffective. Arrests are usually temporary and homeless people will return to the streets, while still lacking vital resources, NLCHP alleges. In addition, the report claims criminal convictions make it more difficult for homeless people to land a job or find a home, which places them in a never-ending cycle of poverty.
"If I go to jail tonight for sleeping outside and they pay for me to spend a couple of days in jail, I get out and I am still homeless. They've done absolutely no good plus I have a criminal record now when I go look for a job," Lyell explained. "It's just a big cycle."
Other states like California and Oregon have also attempted to draft bills that end the criminalization of homelessness. Eric Tars, NLCHP's senior attorney, told VICE News that criminalizing the homeless costs states double or triple what it would take to provide housing for them. Tars said the main cause of homelessness is the lack of affordable housing, but according to him, the bill is a potential step to improve the current situation of homeless people.
"We aren't excited about championing the right of homeless people to sleep on the streets. We believe that housing is a basic human right, and people sleeping on the streets is evidence of the violation of that right," Tars said. "But we do believe that until we collectively ensure that everyone has an adequate place to rest, that people shouldn't be punished for that, and that's why these bills are needed."
Utah reduced its homeless population by 72 percent by offering homeless people housing, saving $8,000 annually per homeless person in the process. In Phoenix, Arizona, there were 222 homeless veterans in 2010, but after the city began offering public housing to the vulnerable population, it became the first in the nation to report no homeless veterans.
Kefalas told the Coloradoan that the state should focus on drifting away from criminalizing the homeless and focus on long-term goals instead.
"All persons should have the right to rest, eat and survive in public places as long as they are not breaking the law," Kefalas said. "We need to refocus our efforts away from criminalizing how someone looks or lives and instead focus on smart and creative ways to address the lack of affordable housing and support services for persons who are homeless."
Tars said the current approach shuns homeless people, and that the new efforts are a step toward embracing American values.
"These advocacy efforts are an effort to bring us back to our best ideals, to something that says we are all equally deserving of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. No one should be punished for trying to survive," Tars added, saying we have to see the homeless "as people, as our fellow citizens, equally deserving of rights and dignity… this is about who we are as Americans."
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