DENVER — Homeless people would have a right to sleep in public places — and sue for damages if it’s denied — under a “right to rest” bill under consideration in the Colorado legislature.
Also known as the Homeless Bill of Rights, the Colorado legislation would give people “experiencing homelessness” the right to rest and eat or accept food in public spaces where food is not prohibited, as well as occupy a legally parked vehicle, “without discrimination.”
Those who believe they have been discriminated against would be able to seek up to $1,000 per violation plus attorney’s fees. California and Oregon are also weighing “right to rest” bills in this year’s legislative session, which are being pushed by the Western Regional Advocacy Project.
The Colorado bill’s chances appear iffy, given that the measure was heard Wednesday by the House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, also known as the “kill committee.” Republicans, who control the state Senate, are not expected to back the bill, and support among Democrats isn’t necessarily unanimous.
The bill, which was laid over to allow more testimony due to time constraints, comes with municipalities moving to enact anti-camping laws and other ordinances aimed at preventing public parks from turning into homeless encampments. Denver passed a law banning urban camping in 2012.
Under the legislation, “rest” means “the state of not moving and holding certain postures that include, but are not limited to, sitting, standing, leaning, kneeling, squatting, sleeping, or lying down.”
Nicole Cisneros, who testified Wednesday, said she has been homeless for seven years, including the last three years in Boulder.
She said she’s been ticketed in the famously liberal enclave for camping and trespassing “countless times,” and once spent 21 days in jail because she couldn’t pay her fines.
“The homeless in Boulder are on a first name basis with the police. Their presence is always there from the library to the homeless dinner. They’re always watching,” said Ms. Cisneros. “Boulder has now managed to move the homeless from existing in certain spaces. They are on the verge of basically criminalizing homelessness.”
Several of those testifying complained that Denver has also “criminalized” the homeless by issuing citations to those dwelling in public spaces, but under Denver law, police must offer services to the homeless first before issuing tickets, said Regina Huerter, executive director of Denver’s Crime Prevention and Control Commission.
“We do not believe this bill helps the homeless,” she said.
Democratic state Rep. Joe Salazar, the bill’s sponsor, asked her, “How does criminalizing homeless folks help them out whatsoever?”
“An arrest is criminalization. My community knows that. Being Latino and having laws passed against us back in 1960s, that’s criminalization,” Mr. Salazar said. “So any time that there’s officers involved resulting in arrest, leading to jail, leading to court fines, that’s criminalization.”
Ms. Huerter ticked off a host of services offered to the homeless in Denver, including mental health and substance-abuse assistance, saying that arresting people is an “absolute last resort.”
“If somebody is intoxicated and they are in front of a business and they are refusing to allow passage for other folks to get into that business, we have to take some kind of action,” Ms. Huerter said. “Our first action is always to try to help people get access to these services. If they refuse to do that, just like any other person regardless of their state of housing, we have to manage that.”
Colorado has become something of a destination location for homeless people and others since voters legalized recreational marijuana in 2012, which has put a strain on the rental housing market and shelters.