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Fort Collins’ urban camping ban discriminates against the homeless

Laurel Thompson
Laurel Thompson

In late August, the city government enforced an ordinance to ban urban camping within the limits of Fort Collins. The restrictions are explained in Article IX, Section 23 of the Fort Collins Municipal Code, which states that, “Camping shall mean to sleep or spend the night or reside or dwell temporarily in a natural area, with or without shelter, or to conduct activities of daily living, such as eating or sleeping, in such place.” To this, camping in designated campgrounds and incidental napping or picnicking are the legal exceptions.

Naturally, the ordinance caused immediate protest among the homeless community, a movement they call “Occupy Jefferson Park,” as the camping ban seems to be an attack on those who most often do not have an alternative to living and sleeping outside. Jefferson Park, located at the corner of Linden and Jefferson streets, is particularly important to a number of veterans and others who are in transient stages of life.

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Jefferson
“Occupy Jefferson Street” protestors Shane Williamson, Kendra Humbert and Zechariah Humbert take a Labor Day lunch break and smile for their cause. (Photo Credit: Laurel Thompson)

“All we’re asking for is equal treatment,” said Zechariah Humbert, spokesperson for the movement. “Homelessness is not a crime and, most often, it is not a choice.”

Although the churches and other nonprofits in Fort Collins practice much community involvement for aiding the homeless, facilities fill up surprisingly quick and most operate on a first-come, first-serve basis — particularly in the winter months. So, what are the hundreds of Fort Collins’ homeless to do when the first snow storm hits and neither the shelters nor the outdoors are available for refuge? That seems like quite an unfair and inhumane predicament, given that sleeping outside during a blizzard, even if allowed, would be awfully uncomfortable and potentially life-threatening.

First and foremost, urban camping is not banned at the state or federal levels, which puts the city government up to blame for violating the homeless community’s constitutional and human rights. To name a few, “activities of daily living” cannot realistically be banned without interfering with citizens’ right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, their right to public space — which they pay for through taxes just like everyone else — and, although more technical and case-specific, their right to travel. For these reasons, city councilman Ray Martinez said the city attorney’s office is working to revise the previous ordinance so it will be more constitutional and purposeful for law enforcement and homeless people in the community.

Furthermore, criminalizing the act of sleeping outdoors seems to be discriminating against the homeless community in a way that keeps them from getting back on their feet.

Violators of the ordinance are ticketed and fined $100 per instance. Failure to appear in court for a camping ticket results in an automatic misdemeanor, a criminal charge that makes it harder to find work and housing due to background checks. Humbert alone has received roughly 30 tickets for camping in various public places within the last three years, and has faced 2.5 months in prison for failure to appear on the tickets.

“You’re automatically a criminal if you don’t pay them, and now they’re handing out even more tickets,” Humbert said. “It’s just a cycle to keep us at the bottom.”

According to Martinez, one of the government’s main concerns that led to the camping ban is the negative impact urban camping has on local businesses and city tax revenue. Apparently, not only does camping on the sidewalks and loitering near businesses hurt the downtown economy, but banning camping in nearby natural areas will keep the homeless from seeking refuge in heated local businesses more so than they already do. Regardless of the city government’s involvement with nonprofits to provide food and shelter for the homeless, it seems as though the ordinance aims to remove any stragglers once the shelters are full. To put it any other way would simply not make sense.

Martinez said another function of the ordinance is to help preserve health and safety within the city’s natural areas, as abandoned property can contaminate or hurt unsuspecting children and wildlife in the area. He said the city is working to create a task force that will determine whether abandoned property is truly abandoned and dispose of it properly, and provide additional resources for the homeless. While I agree that litter and contaminated property in natural areas is an ecological problem, I think the task force would be an appropriate solution in itself, without need for a camping ban.

Fort Collins has much more interconnectivity and community involvement than a lot of other cities, so I think it is essential that we come together and defend the homeless population now, more so than we previously have. Whether it is through the construction of additional facilities, donation boxes, food drives, volunteer work or kind words, people are people and deserve to be aided in times of need, not turned away.

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Collegian Columnist Laurel Thompson can be reached at hmcgill@collegian.com or on Twitter @laurelanne1996.

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  • D

    Derpish McGeeOct 27, 2015 at 7:18 pm

    I was in the half way house in Sterling with Humbert back in 08-09. I actually found this article while looking for him. If its the same gentleman he knew me as Oog. If you have a way to come in contact with him, let him know I hope he’s healthy, and at the very least happy, if not content even if he may be going through a rough time. If he’s able to contact me I can be found on Facebook using the email exodusinside@gmail.com.

    Reply
  • T

    Thomas CreoSep 28, 2015 at 2:48 pm

    This enforcement is not about discriminating against the downtrodden. Jefferson park and many parts of old town have been taken over by “travelers,” and sovereign citizens. These are criminals who choose a wayward lifestyle. If the community was just having a problem with individuals who are down on their luck, that would be one thing. Right now, the problem is with people who have made a park unsafe and unusable, and made the Old Town experience less than family friendly.

    Reply
  • A

    aceSep 17, 2015 at 5:22 pm

    This is a fluff piece without much research and poor reasoning.
    Phrases like: “…their right to public space — which they pay for through taxes just like everyone else..” 1) Have you checked if they filed taxes in the last three years, and, if they paid taxes, rather than received a refund for being low income? 2) How is their right being restricted compared to everyone else who also has limitations placed on them regarding the hours they can use the space?
    You want to write more than a fluff piece? Don’t just interview people and take them at their word. Actually check to make sure if someone is a veteran, check to see if they have tried to get into the veteran’s shelter and been refused or flunked out for failure to find work or save money or whatever. (Or the general population shelters) Check to see if they have drug or alcohol problems and are attending AA or NA programs. Check to see if the reason they don’t want to stay in a shelter is because they want to keep knives or other weapons with them. Their “right to travel”? What does that mean? If you want to drop out of school and travel from place to place and sleep on public property, the rest of us should support you with freebies and also give you money for booze, Molly, pot, and your cell phone — and then hire you for a job when you don’t have a good work history and might even quit to travel the first or second time someone corrects you? Should we give the under $9 jobs at, say Safeway or KS on Taft Hill to a homeless person or to a college or high school student? Maybe they can camp in the back yard of your rental with more than U+2 and then you can give them floor space when it gets cold or pocket change for coffee through the night at the 24 hour McDonald’s on Elizabeth?
    What else, ask people why they became homeless, when was the last time they paid rent, had a job, how did they lose their last apartment, do they have a resume, have they made use of the job center, why do they feel entitled to live in Fort Collins as opposed to somewhere cheaper? Now, if you want a real story, how about writing about someone who gets a job and is promised at least 30 hours which they get for 2 weeks and then they only get 12 or 14 after that at odd hours and are trying to do that for 2 or more jobs. Go give blood or plasma and see who you meet there. Go meet people who do day labor. Don’t just interview the people who are friendly and smile a lot because they’ve got their Molly fix for the day and are hanging out. What else might be interesting? Interview the person living out of their vehicle who has to panhandle for gas, but who knows all the places with large handicap bathrooms where they can go hide out for 20 minutes and take a sponge bath out of the sink, preferably those places where the handicap bathroom is separate from the regular bathrooms with multiple stalls (If you only take a bath 2 or 3x a week, you can always hit up a different church on Sunday or Saturday evening…) Find out where are the best places for dumpster diving, like behind grocery stores with a deli section or certain student apartment complexes…

    Reply
  • K

    Katie Neubauer CarneySep 17, 2015 at 9:06 am

    Hey Paulie Walnuts, you’re an asshole.

    Reply
  • P

    Paulie WalnutsSep 16, 2015 at 9:35 pm

    I can see why you are concerned. As a journalism major, you will probably be homeless by age 30.

    Reply