TurnAbout :: Alternatives to Banning Urban Camping

turn · a · bout [turn-uh-bout]

1. the act of turning in a different or opposite direction.
2. a change of opinion, loyalty, etc.
3. a reciprocal action; act of doing to someone exactly as that person has done to oneself or another.
4. a person who changes things; a radical.

We’re introducing a new series on our blog!  Our “TurnAbout” series will cover editorial or opinion pieces, written by us or a guest, about current and critical social or environmental justice issues.  “TurnAbout” posts foster new ways of thinking about our collective plight, spur community discussion and/or offer up radical solutions for worn-out “problems”.

By tiganatoo

Keeping abreast of world events while cycle touring used to involve the combination of a shortwave radio and adherence to a strict listening schedule comprised of international broadcasts from services like the BBC and Voice of America (among others).  Nowadays, however, the not-so-humble netbook and an increasingly ever-present internet connection provide the contemporary touring cyclist with an on-demand link to the rest of the world.  I personally, in addition to regularly reading e-versions of my hometown newspapers, sign up occasionally for email news feeds which deposit a daily dose of articles into my inbox culled from papers across the United States and/or around the world.  The service I’ve been using of-late included an article that caught my eye.


Urban Camping :: A Threat to Safety & Prosperity?

According to the article I read, and following in the footsteps of a disturbingly long list of other municipalities (our own Burlington, Vermont being one of them), the City Council of Denver, Colorado, had recently executed a preliminary vote on an ordinance banning unauthorized camping within city limits (the final vote is set to commence in a few days on May 14th).  The new regulation came about in response to what some people in the city viewed as a threat to safety and prosperity in the downtown metro area, namely homeless people sleeping out in the open.  Given my past work experience as an affordable housing developer/manager at a community land trust, co-designer and co-builder of a tiny house, and current resident of a roving two-person tent, I am particularly sensitive to issues involving housing for individuals and families in transition.

The effects of bans like these, whether they serve only to limit sitting or laying down on sidewalks and park benches or to restrict people from sleeping in the out-of-doors, in my view, criminalizes homelessness while doing little to correct the problems present in our society that lead to the conditions that make people homeless in the first place.  I also find it curious that laws like these have sprung up in reaction to the Occupy movement, effectively giving police more tools to remove protesters/encampments with impunity while doing so under the guise of protecting our safety (a rather convenient method for maintaining the status quo).


A Sure Sign of Failed Policy = “Problems” that never go away

Reading up more on the Denver situation I felt (and still feel) that the City Council is being horribly shortsighted in their approach to this issue and that we could benefit from seeing the “problem” and the “solutions” in a different light.  Our elected officials, other decision makers and power-brokers often seek solutions to problems by rushing to impose penalties rather than taking the time to think outside of the box in order to arrive at what might be a far more effective (and beneficial) resolution.[flickr id=”6433339507″ thumbnail=”medium” overlay=”true” size=”large” group=”” align=”right”]

Legislating penalties is easy to do since most everything is boilerplate; make the law, throw money at it and the problem “goes away”.  It doesn’t take much innovative thought to come up with a legislative “if” “then” statement (“…if you are caught camping where you are not allowed then you will be cited/fined/jailed.”).  Denver’s current approach will only push the problem underground (perhaps even literally) and/or shuttle the problem onto someone else’s door step.  Its just lazy public policy and should be called out by us as being so.


Changing Tactics :: A New Approach Could Solve Multiple Problems

In contrast, constructing a more community based solution to any problem is a skill that, quite tragically, rarely bubbles its way to the surface of our legislative process.  And that’s the tragedy in all of this, especially in a case like this, since I feel like most of our “recurring problems” are ripe for a more holistic approach.

For that reason, I penned the following letter, which outlines some obvious ideas on how to approach this “problem” differently, and sent it to Denver’s city council members.  It was also submitted it as an open letter to the editor to both the Denver Post and the Denver Business Journal.


Dear Councilors,

I read the text of CB12-0241 (banning authorized camping) as proposed.

Apparently, according to a report released on 05/07/12, there are upwards of 12,605 homeless individuals residing in Denver.  Of this number, approximately 64% were families with children.  And from what I have been able to gather, there are presently fewer than 1800 beds total in city shelters.  I’d say you’ve got a larger problem here then what can be eliminated by a ban on unauthorized camping. 

I also checked and found that Denver’s foreclosure rate in 2011 increased year over year alongside a rise in the number of second homes located in metro Denver.  Knowing little else about your situation, but realizing the ballooning effects of our bungled national economy, I’d like to suggest the following to address the stresses faced by the housed and the house-less in your city:

Rather than ban camping outright, why not instead revolutionize your zoning regulations to permit local residents with modest back yards, unused driveways and/or vacant lots to allow the use of unconventional accessory dwelling units on their property.  If sanctioned by the city (instead of maligned), dwellings the likes of RV’s, fifth wheels, garage conversions, tiny granny flats, tiny houses on wheels (a la Tumbleweed Tiny Homes), tents, teepees, yurts, etc., could be a boon for Denver.  These modest residences could provide homeowners/landowners with much needed rental income while also providing thousands of single people and families with children a stable address from which to collect themselves and blossom.  And as for your plethora of second homes – how about getting your mayor to issue a public a statement urging owners with excess square footage to pair up with families who need housing?  Just think of the connections that could be made; the lifelong friendships born and disasters averted!  I can’t help but wonder how many impending foreclosures could be diverted under just such a scenario.  Additionally, how many broken families could be healed?  How many grateful citizens would be in an improved position to find work, thus adding to rather than depleting your tax rolls?  How many property owners would be able to pay off delinquent property taxes? 

The list of potential benefits of such an approach goes on and on.  These and other cascading benefits could materialize with little additional city expense.  With a little regulation and a decent educational campaign, something like this could rapidly propagate.  The city could join with local non-profits eager for innovative structures and comprised of people with the expertise to attract innovative funding sources.  A not-too radical rethink of the way you currently “deal” with homelessness/vacant lots/public space/vacant buildings would likely cough up sufficient funds.      

Your ordinance as written does very little to address the route causes of homelessness nor does it really assist those who find themselves without a home to improve their situation.  Instead of perceiving your “problem” as the amazing opportunity it is to reinvigorate and revitalize your community, your ordinance inordinately penalizes innocent children whose only “crime” is living in families facing hard times.  Put a face on these statistics of homelessness and you’ll find members of extended families, hardworking moms and dads, US military veterans, young people, maybe even former neighbors. 

Why would anyone want to add insult to injury by slapping each of them with yet another obstacle standing in their way of redemption and self-respect?  I urge you to wake up to the needs of your community and embrace a new way of doing things.  Put aside your tired and ineffective methods for “dealing” with homelessness.  Choose love and caring over obsolete penalties. 

The time is now!  Seize it!


Kai Mikkel Forlie


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