Rhetoric muddles the meaning of Denver's "camping ban"
Credit: Samuel B. Doran
Rhetoric muddles the meaning of Denver's "camping ban"

In the recent debate about Denver's camping ban, perhaps the most accurate assessment of the new law came from Pam Crossland.

 

“I have been homeless, and I have been camping,” said she said during public comment at the April 30 Denver City Council meeting. “And they are not the same.”

 

The distinction between camping as recreation and sleeping in a city park, sidewalk or alley as an act of survival is such a simple, clear and honest analysis that anyone who finds the euphemism “urban camping” useful should be embarrassed. The new law, proposed by Councilman Albus Brooks has been buried and mangled by language that is inaccurate, mild or hateful.

 

The bill – passed on May 14 – prohibits taking shelter – which includes blankets or tarps – to sleep on any public or private land without permission. Councilman Christopher Herndon, who voted in favor of the camping ban, said it's clearly not criminalizing homelessness, because you can't legally criminalize an entire class of people. That would be illegal. But for the most part, Council members who support the ban have acknowledged it targets the homeless. Council members Albus Brooks and Charlie Brown – two vocal proponents – talk exclusively about homeless people when justifying the need for the so-called camping ban.

 

So let's call this law, and the others like it across the country, what they are: homeless bans. Or at least bans on visible homelessness.

 

According to Metro Denver Homeless, a group that tracks homeless issues in Denver, there were 12,605 homeless people in the Denver Metro area on Jan. 23, 2012. Why outlaw daily necessities for this group of vulnerable people?

 

Even council members who oppose the ban get caught up in the neutral language of social work – fretting about the new law's effect on “homeless individuals.” These are the sort of mild words that turn people into concepts. It's much harder to care about the fate of a concept than the fate of a person.

 

Listen to supporters of the ban and the language gets stronger. Managers of downtown restaurants like The Palms and Snooze talked about the fear (not to mention distaste) employees and customers feel when they're forced to see sleeping human bodies on the sidewalks near the restaurants. Even worse, some of those sleeping bodies might awaken and morph into people who could litter, get agitated or even talk to folks on their way to brunch. Notably, the latter activities can't be described as sleeping, or even camping, so they won't be covered by the ban.

 

Councilman Brown summed up the perceived need for the ban in honest, if despicable, terms. Paraphrasing a constituent, he called a park frequented by homeless people an “open sewer. According to Brown, homeless people are a blemish, tarnish on the city.

 

Unlike other supporters, Brown doesn't cloud his arguments with feigned concern for Denver's poor and homeless. He's not talking about getting people “plugged into” social services or “accountability.” He's effective – and apparently unashamed – at reducing a group of people into a handful of ugly metaphors.

 

With words like these, it's easy to pass a law that council member Paul Lopez correctly says “punishes the poor for being poor.”

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Leslie Wilber is a journalist who has covered police misconduct, courts, high school sports and other disasterous things. She lives in Denver and is an editor at The Precarious.

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