By: Lynn Thompson and Shirley Coenen
For many of the members of the Fort Collins Homeless Coalition (FCHC), their daily experience of being homeless in Fort Collins revolves around trying to stay out of sight and find someplace safe to sleep where they won’t have contact with police, rangers, or security guards. But security guards and city employees are one thing, and police are another. This is because sleeping outside is one of the many activities deemed illegal in parts of Colorado.
The state’s 76 largest cities have collectively passed 351 ordinances that target the homeless, from bans on camping to sitting or lying down in public to simply sharing food outside. That’s how cities in Colorado have, for the most part, opted to deal with their homeless populations: by passing and enforcing ordinances that criminalize basic acts of survival and wasting resources that could otherwise be spent on services, making life even harder for those without roofs over their head.
“It’s illegal to stand still, it’s illegal to sit down, it’s illegal to lay down, it’s illegal to eat. You’re breaking the law as soon as you stop walking.” – Paul Boden, Executive Director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project
If someone is cited, they first face a fine and a court date. But most homeless people can’t afford to pay a fine and can’t make it to court. It’s a cycle of criminalization. People get a citation, they can’t pay it, they get a warrant for their arrest … then they spend anywhere from two to three days in jail. Then they can’t get a job because they have a criminal background.
The ordinances could, on their face, apply to anyone. But that’s not how they’re enforced. A high percentage of people who have gotten tickets under these ordinances are homeless. For example, most of downtown Fort Collins has a smoking ban that should impact anyone who lights up a cigarette, and yet the vast majority of people given citations for smoking since it’s been enacted were homeless, with 37 out of the 43 smoking tickets written to people experiencing homelessness in the first year of the ban. Similarly, in Denver over half of all the trespass citations issued between 2013 and 2014 were for homeless residents, even though homeless people represent just 0.6 percent of the population.
Cops are only going to enforce ordinances against those people who are ‘the problem;” Homeless people are not the only people sitting on a sidewalk, but they’re the only ones going to jail for it.
Colorado’s cities appear to be particularly vigorous in their enforcement. Video from 2016 showed Denver police officers taking blankets from people in freezing November weather. And it’s only intensifying. FCHC’s research found that camping bans and “move along” orders are increasing as well in Fort Collins. In fact, from 2010 to 2017, Fort Collins saw a 465% increase in camping tickets.
That may be because the state’s homeless population is increasing, due in part to a lack of investment in public housing, coupled with skyrocketing home prices. According to the latest point-in-time number, there are around 11,000 homeless people in Colorado, nearly 4,000 of whom have nowhere to sleep at night. That’s up from about 2,300 homeless people in 2008, 1,800 of whom had no shelter. Existing shelters usually don’t have enough capacity to give everyone a bed, plus many people can’t comply with all of the rules regarding who’s allowed in and where.
Fort Collins has not been able to effectively support their homeless communities, so instead they try to scare them off and use the police to enforce laws which criminalize their existence.
Criminalizing people’s attempts to survive outside, however, only makes it harder for them to become housed. For example, landlords do rent checks in ways that filter people out if you’ve got any criminal history. It raises the bar that much higher. It also makes finding a job or even accessing public benefits — such as subsidized housing or, in some places, food stamps — nearly impossible.
Criminalizing homeless people can also make them less likely to take advantage of the services that might be available. When you give police officers the power to ticket and arrest and put people in jail they’re no longer seen as someone “deserving” of services. However, It’s much more complicated than that in Fort Collins because we have diversionary sentencing (“Special Agency Court”) that specifically tries to use the criminal system to connect people to services. Meaning that when someone gets a camping ticket, they have the option to plead guilty and go to special agency session. Essentially, you accept a court-ordered sentence of working with a case worker for some amount of time (six months is typical, but it’s not really limited), instead of things like fines or jail.
This system is set up as a great way to mitigate the worst harms inflicted by our broken system, without actually fixing what’s broken.
People go to special agency court, stand in front of Judge Lane, and say: Well, I’m here for my camping ticket. But just so you know, Judge, I don’t have anywhere else to stay tonight, so I’ll be camping again. Moreover, the City has taken to arguing that thanks to special agency court, camping tickets actually help connect people with services/housing. Which makes in total- zero sense.
Connecting the Issues: Lockers and Anti-Oppression Tactics
FCHC will be having an organizing meeting on Saturday, September 15 from 3-5pm at Buckingham Park, where we will discuss this year’s plan to organize around these social justice and a human rights issues- for people’s ability to live with full protections in the community of their choice. No local communities should be able to pass ordinances that criminalize the presence of people they don’t like.
In the Old Town Library park neighborhood right now, there is a lot of talk about public safety at risk because of the Fort Collins Mennonite Fellowship installation of twenty lockers to provide space for those experiencing homelessness to store their belongings.
Instead of acknowledging the anti-homeless violence that disproportionately affects people who must carry all of their belongings with them, or the overall increased risks to their safety from lack of storage that comes from theft- the library park neighborhood is acting out of fear of allowing people to exist in a public space. Further, storage affects people’s ability to move around, feel safe, and be treated fairly in our community. Often times, we find that our non-homeless allies often get confused when we advocate for small-scale service improvements because they instinctively frame it as a social services role (“how heartwarming, people want to help the homeless!”) instead of an recognizing our work as a part of an overall anti-oppression tactic.
Solidarity Not Charity
In order to be committed to the decriminalization of poverty, the FCHC works with a critical analysis that recognizes the intersections of race, class, gender and disability. We are a small group of activists, composed primarily of those who have experience with homelessness first hand. We are both working tirelessly (since October 2014 when the need for lockers was first recognized) to advocate for the rights of those experiencing homelessness and poverty, as well as critically analyzing the larger systemic conditions and ideologies which are producing the oppression that we resist as a daily practice.
As bell hooks (2000) has made clear, class matters:
To challenge racism or sexism or both without linking these
systems to economic structures of exploitation and our collective
participation in the upholding and maintenance of such structures
. . . is ultimately to betray a vision of justice for all. (p. 161)
The hegemonic economic and political power imbalances are what create and reify the oppressive realities that FCHC has been working to heal, prevent and transform, such as the eviction of residents of Choice House, the sit-lie ban, camping tickets and the criminalization of homelessness, the right to rest legislation, access to bathrooms and clean drinking water for all, and so much more.
Everyday we witness firsthand some of the challenges of systemic advocacy aimed at changing implicitly and systematically racist and classist institutions. But there is reason to be hopeful. Through hard work and community-centered advocacy, institutions can be changed. The problems we face are colossal and deeply entrenched. But there is a path forward and much to be done.