by Kit O’Connell
Until recently, cops in Denver were confiscating life-saving equipment like sleeping bags and tents from area homeless people.
On Saturday, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock promised to let the homeless keep their tents and blankets during cold weather months. An upcoming “polar vortex” is expected to usher in dangerously cold, below-zero temperatures in Denver.
“As a city, we have a responsibility and moral obligation to protect the lives of our residents,” Hancock said in a statement quoted by the Denver Post.
This freshly minted “moral obligation” to not kill homeless people in the winter came only after a local outcry and widespread condemnation of the policy on social media. A Nov. 29 Facebook live video by Denver activist Kayvan Soorena Tyler Khalatbari-Limaki showing police confiscating winter gear has been viewed more than 500,000 times. Coverage of the confiscations by independent media collective Unicorn Riot was also widely shared.
Like many cities, Denver has a “camping ban” which prohibits the homeless from pitching tents or using other camping equipment. The ban also provides a cruel justification for the police to confiscate the gear as “evidence” of a crime being committed. Mayor Hancock’s administration was even been accused of using charitable donations to fund brutal “sweeps” of homeless encampments.
While the behavior of Denver police may seem shocking, homeless people’s very existence has been criminalized in many cities and camping bans are far from uncommon. From Austin to Pasadena and back again, homeless people can be charged with sitting in public, storing their possessions on the sidewalk, even for sleeping. Some cities are making it illegal to share food with the homeless.
“Could you survive if there were no place you were allowed to fall asleep, store your belongings, or stand still?” asked Michael Maskin in a 2014 analysis of anti-homeless laws published by Talk Poverty.
Last year, the the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated there were about 565,000 homeless people in America. A quarter of those were under 18.
Even setting aside basic fucking human decency, research suggests it’s more cost-effective to house the homeless than to criminalize them. Despite this, the wealthy and powerful would rather drive the homeless into jail or an early grave than give them a hand up, so these laws keep spreading even as housing costs keep rising.
And Denver police police might continue to take equipment after all, according to Unicorn Riot. Although the mayor banned police from taking tents and sleeping bags under the camping ordinance, cops could still claim the tents are abandoned or causing an “encumbrance” to pedestrian traffic.
Regardless of what happens in Denver, homeless people across the country will be struggling in viciously cold temperatures this weekend. It might be time to raid your closets and hand out some spare blankets to needy folks near you.