Fort Collins City Council is considering revisions to the sidewalk obstruction ordinance. This revised ordinance would prohibit sitting, kneeling, or lying within 20 feet of a business entrance anywhere in Fort Collins, whether or not any person's passage has in fact been impeded.
Last February, Fort Collins city management proposed a Sit-Lie Ban that would have made it illegal to sit, kneel, or lie down in large areas of downtown. The ACLU of Colorado called it "one of the most outrageous, cruel and absurd examples that we have seen yet of a proposed ordinance clearly targeting unhoused persons." Hundreds of people turned out against this proposal, with hundreds more writing letters of protest: this ordinance did not reflect the values of our community. City Council listened to us, and did not pass the Sit-Lie Ban.
At the time of the Sit-Lie Ban vote, some people (such as the police department and city management) claimed that a Sit-Lie Ban was necessary to keep sidewalks clear for pedestrians. But Fort Collins already had an ordinance that made it illegal to block a sidewalk: the existing Obstruction Ordinance. Everyone could agree that the existing Obstruction Ordinance had problems, although we disagreed about what those problems were. So City Council told staff to re-write the Ordinance. Now, City staff have presented their version of a new Obstruction Ordinance, keeping some things the same, and adding some new things.
The changes to the obstruction ordinance can be viewed as an attachment below.
What's Wrong With the Obstruction Ordinance
Nobody is arguing that it's okay to block sidewalks. But our Obstruction Ordinance creates a second definition for the term "obstruct," one that includes behavior that (a) does not actually obstruct anyone's passage, and (b) isn't remotely likely to cause any obstruction. That's unnecessary, and potentially very harmful.
The broader an ordinance is, the more vulnerable
it is to abuse. We already know that people experiencing homelessness in Fort
Collins receive an extraordinary amount of police scrutiny, and receive tickets
for petty municipal offenses at a VASTLY higher rate than persons with access
to housing. These tickets cause substantial personal hardship, and are hurting
our community. We need to address this problem, not add to it.
Every human being needs rest. If you have access to housing, you probably have a place to sit, kneel, or lie down -- on your couch, or on the floor -- without fear. If you are a person without housing, you also have places to sit, kneel, rest, and lie down -- public spaces, where everyone should be welcome. Laws that make sitting and lying down into crimes target the most vulnerable members of our community. We should be eliminating these laws, not expanding them.
People Have the Right to Exist Within 20 Feet of a Business
Everyone probably agrees that blocking a sidewalk counts as obstruction. However, the Obstruction Ordinance would also define obstruction this way: "sitting, kneeling, or lying within twenty (20) feet of the entrance to any business establishment during the business hours of that establishment, whether or not a particular person's passageway has, in fact, been impeded."
A vast amount of downtown Fort Collins lies within 20 feet of the entrance to a business. Banning sitting, kneeling, or lying in those areas amounts to a sit-lie ban throughout a significant portion of the downtown area. Fort Collins has already said NO to a sit-lie Ban!
The Obstruction Ordinance already makes it illegal to block a doorway, a sidewalk, and all kinds of other features downtown. That is enough. We do not also need to make it illegal simply to exist within 20 feet of the entrance to a business.
Let's Make This Ordinance Better
The point of revising an ordinance is to make it better. City Council has an opportunity to make sure that their Obstruction Ordinance is well-written, and that it takes aim only at behavior that really does have some reasonable relationship to blocking sidewalks, or making it harder to get around downtown. They need to take advantage of this opportunity.
The 20 ft. limit should be shortened, or eliminated entirely from this ordinance. It is nearly impossible to obstruct the entrance to a business from 20 ft. away. This distance is far too great, and gives police far too much power to decide who is, and is not, welcome in our public spaces.
The language "whether or not any person's passage has in fact been impeded" should be removed from this ordinance. It is absurd to broaden an obstruction ordinance to include conduct that does not cause an obstruction!