No human being can live without sleep. When someone is turned away from a shelter, they still must find a way to sleep to survive. Laws that criminalize sleeping outdoors or in vehicles are designed to reduce the visibility of the homeless, while doing nothing to decrease the number of people experiencing homelessness or improving their situation. In fact, laws such as this increase the burdens of being homeless, creating additional hardships and leading to a vicious cycle of citations, arrests, fines, and incarceration that drives people further into poverty.
Homelessness and poverty are a national issue, the product of rising income inequality and decades of failed federal housing policy. Because federal responses have been so inadequate at meeting local needs, a growing number of communities have responded to the concerns of businesses and local residents uncomfortable with the unsightliness of such poverty, adopting increasingly punitive policy measures designed to reduce the visibility of homeless people. Fort Collins is among these communities.
The criminalization of homelessness can take many forms. It includes the enactment and enforcement of laws that make it illegal to sleep, sit, or store personal belongings in the public spaces of cities that do not have sufficient shelter, storage, or affordable housing. This is certainly the case here in Fort Collins, where the lack of shelter space, storage options, and affordable housing are openly accepted facts, yet where tickets continue to be written for people who sleep or store their belongings in public. The criminalization of homelessness can also take the form of discriminatory or harassing enforcement practices, such as mass ticketing events, the selective enforcement of otherwise neutral laws, and singling out people perceived to be homeless for increased police scrutiny and control.
FC 17-181: Fort Collins’ Shameful Camping Ban
Fort Collins has several municipal ordinances that make it illegal to sleep, rest, or camp in public spaces, in a legally-parked vehicle, or even on private property with the permission of the property owner. However, the primary ordinance used to target homeless people in Fort Collins is the City’s public camping ban: Section 17-181 of the Municipal Code.
There are many more people experiencing homelessness in Fort Collins than there are beds in our shelters, especially in summer, when “emergency winter overflow” shelter space shuts down. Moreover, our shelters are clearly not appropriate for the needs of many people — even on nights when shelter beds are available, many choose not to sleep there, as the conditions are simply not manageable. Instead of focusing resources on fixing this broken system, the City of Fort Collins chooses to act as though homeless human beings are the problem — writing hundreds of tickets annually for the “crime” of resting in public spaces.
In 2017, Fort Collins issued its highest number of camping tickets yet: 413. This is a 465% increase in camping tickets since 2010. This is a human rights crisis in our community.
Enforcement and Extrajudicial Practices
Fort Collins has also employed police tactics, such as mass ticketing events or “sweeps,” that are aimed at driving homeless populations out of certain parts of our city entirely, and increasing alienation and hostility. People who are perceived to be homeless are routinely approached, questioned, and often ticketed by police. Private citizens and business owners often participate in and drive this system, calling police to register concerns over individuals who have done nothing more than appear homeless in public. Additional measures that would target homeless people, such as Sit/Lie Bans, have been proposed and seriously considered on an annual basis.
Even when people do not receive tickets, the practice of criminalizing homelessness targets homeless people, and singles them out for discriminatory treatment. People experiencing homelessness in Fort Collins endure constant scrutiny and harassment. Their attempts to engage in life-sustaining behavior, such as sleeping, are constantly interrupted. They are told to “move on,” but there is no place to which they can legally “move on” and obtain rest; however politely it may be phrased, the demand is a vicious farce. The “legal” places to sleep in Fort Collins are insufficient, unaffordable, or inadequate, so police keep homeless women and men constantly moving, constantly exhausted, constantly stressed, and constantly without any means to meet their human needs.
This is not a sustainable approach to poverty. It is a violation of basic human, civil, and constitutional rights.
The Fort Collins Homeless Coalition Stands Against the Camping Ban
The Fort Collins Homeless Coalition has asked that the City cease and desist in issuing tickets to people found camping, sleeping, or resting in public places. It has asked the City to create places where people may sleep in their legally parked vehicles, and to cease and desist in issuing tickets to people resting or sleeping in their vehicles until such places are created. It has asked the City to repeal Section 17-182 (prohibiting camping on private property, even with permission of the property owner) of its Municipal Code, and to repeal or substantially modify Section 17-181 (prohibiting resting in public spaces).
In 2015, City staff expressed interest in modifying some of the anti-camping ordinance provisions of Municipal Code Sec. 17-181, to distinguish between sleeping in public and illegal camping, and publicly raised the idea of revising the portion of Municipal Code sec. 17-182 with regard to sleeping in vehicles on private camping (allowing churches to invite homeless individuals or families to sleep in their vehicles on church property). FCHC expressed support of these proposals, and was working with the City to restore some humanity to our laws. However, in March 2016, the Fort Collins City Manager’s office abruptly ended all work toward a better camping ban, without democratic process. FCHC’s statement on this act can be found here.
FCHC continues to work toward the right of people of every income level to enjoy equal treatment in Fort Collins.
What Does Ticketing Data Tell Us?
Each year, FCHC collects publicly available data from the Fort Collins Police Services about how many tickets are being given under several municipal ordinances. Information on ticketing trends, as well as the text of Fort Collins’ camping ban, can be found in the following pdf:
Please note: ticketing data does not tell us how often people are contacted by police under an ordinance, instructed to change their behavior (even if they were not behaving illegally), told to “move along,” or otherwise pushed out of public spaces without a ticket being written. While police often regard contact as a neutral/benign action, people being contacted do not always experience it this way. In fact, being repeatedly singled out for police attention, contact, questioning, and control is often intimidating, oppressive, marginalizing, and can make a person less likely to trust the police or report concerning/dangerous/criminal behavior to them.
Related articles and documents
FCHC press release on camping ban (Fort Collins Homeless Coalition, 2015)
City Manager’s Office Halts Camping Ban Reform in Fort Collins (Fort Collins Homeless Coalition, 2016)